Prioritise Education to Accelerate Momentum towards Peace and Prosperity in Kenya

By Griffin Asigo

This year’s UN’s International Day of Education, commemorated on Tuesday, 24 January 2023, marked the mid-point since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2023 theme, “Invest in people, prioritise education,” offered a powerful reminder that education is the cornerstone of all the SDGs and underpins progress towards the achievement of all the other 16 SDGs.

UNESCO, the UN’s education arm, made a compelling case for investment in education: “Without inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all, countries will not succeed in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind,” UNESCO noted in its 2023 commemoration note.

Increasingly, visionary governments across Africa are changing the way they spend money on education, by investing in outcomes—tangible learning gains for their students.

Kenya has for instance emerged as a leader in many respects. The country already spends nearly 5% of its GDP on education, more than it spends on anything else.

Over the past year alone, Kenya has created a presidential working party to scrutinise education sector policies and announced a capitation deal to facilitate free learning for secondary students in public schools. The government also plans to recruit 30,000 new teachers, most of them for the new Junior Secondary School (JSS) level.

All these efforts are aimed at buttressing Kenya’s Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), its commitment to the achievement of universal basic education and its 100% transition policy from primary to secondary school.

Although average spending on education for sub-Saharan Africa is lower at 3.4%—below the global average of 4.3%—international donors also contribute very large sums. The Global Partnership for Education invests funds raised from donor countries such as the US and UK. It estimates it has granted more than $231 million for education in Kenya alone since 2005, and more than $275 million for Nigeria over the last decade. GPE has spent more than $5.7 billion of donor funding on education across sub-Saharan Africa.

But despite such government and international spending levels, education outcomes remain at crisis levels. The World Bank’s most recent update estimates that 89% of ten-year-olds in sub-Saharan Africa cannot read a simple sentence—indicating widespread learning poverty.

Incidentally, the World Bank contends that neither the COVID-19 pandemic nor associated school closures are to blame for the crisis. “Learning poverty was very high even before the pandemic,” says the Bank. Neither is a lack of enrolment to blame—the World Bank estimates that in 2018, 90% of primary-age children attended school in low and middle-income countries.

These grim statistics make it clear that prioritising education is not enough. The priority must now shift to learning.

Independent research studies in Kenya and Uganda have indicated that a synergy between the respective national curriculums and a standardised, technology-driven teaching methodology could transform public education. One authoritative study, led by Professor Michael Kremer, Nobel Prize winner for Economics in 2019, reported that the teaching methods used in Bridge community schools in Kenya yielded some of the biggest learning gains ever found in such a study.

In both countries, the Bridge community schools use the respective national educational systems—the CBC in Kenya and Universal Primary Education (UPE) in Uganda—and maximise learning among pupils by integrating technology that enables world-class quality lessons for more effective learning, standardised teaching and data-driven school management.

The results have so far been excellent. Bridge pupils have performed remarkably well in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Uganda’s Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), consistently beating the national average and earning placements in some of the most prestigious secondary schools. In the January 2023 secondary school placements, following Kenya’s 2022 KCPE examinations, 34 Bridge pupils were called up to join national schools. These are elite public high schools that admit the best-performing KCPE candidates and are equipped with the best learning facilities. The study also found that girls in Bridge schools made the same leap in learning as boys, signifying progress for gender parity.

The value-add of the Bridge model has gone on to underpin large-scale government education transformation programmes in various countries across Africa and Asia.

In every case where tangible advancement in education has been achieved, the gathering of regular and accurate data on how pupils are performing has been key to success. This sadly remains a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa. UNESCO points out that there is no data at all on the learning levels of two-thirds of African children.

There is ample evidence to support UNESCO’s argument that quality education boosts economic opportunity. A new study co-authored by the Yidan Prize winner Professor Eric Hanushek spells it out. “According to our projections based on historical patterns of long-run growth, the world would gain $718 trillion in added GDP over the remaining century if it were to reach global universal basic skills. This is equivalent to over five times the current annual world GDP.”

But driving-up learning outcomes does even more. As Dr Liesbet Steer, Executive Director of the Education Commission explains, investing in human capital is also vital to saving the planet from climate disaster. “Greater investment in education, especially for girls and women, is a critical means of enhancing adaptive capacities over the long term…investments in women’s and girls’ education offer the potential dual benefit of furthering climate action while increasing overall social equity.”

On this International Day of Education, we should be clear that investment which drives up learning and transforms outcomes for students must be our priority. And clear also that if it can be achieved, the gains across Africa and for the whole world will be transformational too.

Griffin Asigo is Managing Director for Bridge Kenya and Uganda.