Are Kenyan children ready for the leap from pre-primary to primary school?

Four-year-old Stacey Musimbi sits inside a specialised early childhood deaf unit programme in Nairobi. Reuters/Samantha Sais

A child’s brain develops rapidly during the first five years of life. In this time it is exposed to countless stimuli in a variety of environments. Research has demonstrated that participating in early childhood programmes leads to higher levels of academic achievement and better adjustment during later schooling years.

The significance of early childhood education is attested to by its positioning as the first goal in the World Declaration on Education for All which aims at,

Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

In Kenya, preschool education is not compulsory. A child is not required to attend a pre-primary or early childhood development and education (ECDE) class before joining primary school. Nonetheless, many public primary schools have pre-primary schools linked to them.

Out of the more than 40,000 ECDE centres in Kenya, nearly 70% are attached to a primary school. There are 114,831 teachers with less than half of them professionally trained.

The quality and demand for pre-primary

More women are joining Kenya’s workforce. This has increased the demand for early childhood education services, which have proliferated the public and private sectors. But many children who attend these preschool centres do not receive quality services.

Apart from having few trained teachers, the early childhood education sector receives little financial support from the government. Furthermore, many of these centres are characterised by inadequate play and learning materials and lack of health and nutrition services.

Meanwhile, the increased enrolment in public primary schools has resulted in a decline in the quality of instruction. For children from poor households, the combined effects of inadequate preparation for pre-primary school and low quality primary education could have significant adverse implications on their school preparedness and opportunities later in life.

Assessing these challenges and improving the quality of early childhood education is the ultimate goal of a three-year pilot programme in Kenya. The Tayari programme aims to develop a tested, cost-effective, affordable and scalable model for ensuring that preschool children are cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally prepared for primary school. Tayari, which means “ready” in Kiswahili, will strengthen the existing ECDE model in Kenya. It will do so through:

  • developing child-centered instructional materials;

  • interactive teacher training combined with continued instructional coaching and support; and,

  • a child health intervention that integrates psychosocial with health and nutritional components.

By 2018, the programme will reach 75,000 children in 1,500 centres in the four pilot counties of Laikipia, Nairobi, Uasin Gishu and Siaya. The effectiveness of the programme is measured based on children’s scores on the Tayari School Readiness Index (TSRI). This is a composite index that measures performance across 10 tasks that cover:

  • executive functioning, that is, the ability to hold and manipulate information in short-term memory

  • literacy skills including sound knowledge

  • letter name knowledge and rhyme;

  • and numeracy skills such as oral addition and quantity discrimination.

If the programme is found to be effective in improving school readiness for children in pre-primary school, it will be scaled up to all preschool learning centres across the country.

Encourage critical thinking

One of the hallmarks of quality is the style of teaching used in the classroom. Teachers should foster learning environments that encourage critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, global awareness, and social responsibility. But the predominant teaching techniques focus on academic preparation through use of memorisation and recitation. This means that the development of other skills, such as the social and emotional get minimal attention.

Many public and private ECDE centres in Kenya are affiliated with a primary school. It is usually the case that children will move on to the affiliate primary school. With the introduction of free primary education in Kenya, parents expected that public pre-primary schools would also be free of charge. When this did not materialise, many poor households opted to keep their children at home until they could attend the free primary schools.

School readiness scores for boys and girls

Kenyans have long obsessed with the qualitative differences between public and private education. But the initial results from this preschool study show no significant difference between the learners in public and private pre-primary schools in terms of literacy, numeracy, executive functioning and socio-emotional readiness.

The school readiness index scores for boys were not significantly different from those of girls. That was the good news. The bad news was that the children’s school readiness was generally found to be poor. Most did not possess the majority of skills assessed by the TSRI. In both public and private ECDE centers, mean index scores were 50% or below.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses inherent in teacher-centered approaches, the programme results found that in public and private learning centres, most teachers employed direct instruction as the primary teaching strategy. Furthermore, more than 60% of teachers’ time in class was focused on the entire group.

Very little time (less than 30% of the lesson time) was devoted to individual children or group work as teachers hardly engaged in actions that would encourage learners to work independently and cooperatively. This flies in the face of efforts to improve teaching quality in early childhood classrooms.

The initial results from this programme highlight the need to transform Kenya’s approach to teaching. Doing so will help Kenya to attain inclusive, quality education for all its citizens, starting from the very youngest members of society.

The Conversation

Njora and I acknowledge the contribution of APHRC Policy Engagement Manager Mwangi Chege

Njora Hungi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.