How to ensure marginalised learners don’t remain behind by Virginia Ngindiru

There is goodwill from the government of Kenya on matters of education financing. It may not be sufficient, but the effort to fund education is notable. The free primary and subsidized day secondary education, the ongoing curriculum reforms as well as teacher training to enhance their capacity to deliver have been made possible due to dedicated funding streams.

The curriculum reforms are bold, timely and consistent with the focus to produce globally competitive graduates, endowed with 21st-century skills.

But it is perhaps rightful to ask, what has the funding so far received delivered for us? Our aspiration of providing quality education for every child is at stake given that most of our learners are in school but not learning.

The Uwezo report of 2016 showed that nationally only 3 out of 10 (30%) of learners in grade 3 could do grade 2 work. When we consider specific literacy subjects, only 40% of the grade three learners assessed could read a grade two level story in English. Three years of schooling (and five if we consider pre-primary) but no basic reading competency to show for it. This is troubling.

This challenge is caused mainly by the fact that school-going children face a multi-lingual dilemma. The language of use in school, mostly English and Swahili, is not the language they speak back at home, creating a lag.

I believe that however, with the progress being made so far, there are viable ways to assist children to thrive even in such environments.

When Zizi Afrique Foundation assessed learners in Bungoma, Turkana and Tana River counties in 2018, only 35 percent could read a story in English, compared to 41 percent according to the Uwezo study, marking a six percent decline.

This is despite huge investments, a phenomenon possibly explained by studies such as the one by Paul Glewwe, Michael Kremer and Sylvie Moulin (2009), which showed that investing in textbooks (inputs) did not raise the test scores of learners lagging in their foundational competencies.

Going by the World Bank estimates, more children will slide into illiteracy due to COVID-19 closures, losing nearly a year of learning (six months adjusted for quality). In Kenya, the 70% of learners who could not read in 2015 should compel us to declare a learning emergency and to quickly fix it before it is too late.

Luis Crouch, a Senior Economist at an International Development Group noted, in a 2019 article, that countries that have succeeded in improving performance have done so by improving the outcomes of the most vulnerable children.

Programs such as the Accelerated Learning Programme (ALP) by Safaricom Foundation and Zizi Afrique have proven that we can enable such children to read and do basic math, within only 30 days.

Adapting the Teaching at the Right Level approach, the program has demonstrated that if teachers are well equipped on assessment and level-based instruction methods, then they can tailor instruction to the level of the child, which hastens their learning.

A focus on the child’s level, irrespective of the grade is critical. More than half of the over 13,000 learners reached through ALP could read within 30 days, and we, therefore, believe, that such interventions, if scaled up or adopted into the mainstream classrooms can contribute to learning.

The challenge of learning is visible – what can we do as a country? Reflecting on this years’ Global Action Week on Education, we may consider three things:

Narrow our focus and be deliberate about foundational skills. Data has shown us where the gaps are – children in school, yet not learning.

A child who can’t read will never do well even in other subjects. A declaration of every child reading and focusing our energies on foundational competencies is the best we can gift to our future generation.

Invest in reskilling teachers on foundational learning. An all-rounded teacher – who is equipped with assessment tools, and methods of teaching, can change the world.

Through assessment, they will identify the level of the child, and apply the most appropriate method to pick the child from there. Teachers who have the skills to assess and facilitate learning will transform learning in every classroom.

Lastly, invest in building the agency of the communities. COVID-19 reminded us that communities are a significant piece of learning as we constantly called upon them to ensure continued learning at home.

They are essential in winning the battle against illiteracy. Empowering and engaging parents to support learning is a good choice. Same way, the jobless youth offer a goldmine for facilitating foundational learning everywhere, and this is a resource that should be tapped.

If only we can get every child reading, this world would be full of happy children. We owe this to future generations.

This blog was first published on Business Daily.

Virginia Ngindiru, Programme Manager at Zizi Afrique Foundation. For feedback, email

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