After COVID-19, let’s reimagine education in Kenya

Digital learning should be part of a basic package of essential services for every child

By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative to Kenya
Children learning using tablets
24 July 2021

This article first appeared in The Standard on July 24, 2021.

Children have endured difficult times since COVID-19 arrived in Kenya. In 2020, school closures interrupted learning for over 17 million children and increased their risk of violence, child labour and child marriage. Mental well-being suffered. After these challenges, it was very encouraging to see the safe return of children to schools in 2021 and the subsequent exam results – in which 893 candidates scored grade A, up from 627 in 2019. These are huge achievements by children and the education sector that we should celebrate.

But for many of Kenya’s children, the return to school has not yet meant a return to normality. First, because of the learning loss that younger and rural children experienced during 2020, and second because some groups of children have still not come back.

Let’s take learning loss. This is a disturbing phenomenon whereby children’s education, rather than being paused during school closures, actually goes into reverse. Several reports have now shown this at the global and regional level such as ‘Building back better to avert a learning catastrophe’ in International Journal of Educational Development (July 2021). Here in Kenya, ‘Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on Learning in Rural Kenya’ by Whizz Education (April 2021) found that 53 per cent of students showed declines in their levels of maths knowledge, or ‘maths age’. The average loss among those students was 13 months – meaning that their maths age had regressed by more than a year from where it was before the start of school closures.

Breaking these results down further, learning loss was greater in the lower grades than higher, which is likely why we didn’t see this reflected in exam results. Girls were more impacted than boys, and those in poorer rural areas much more than their counterparts in richer urban areas – thereby increasing existing inequalities. And if children lost maths skills during school closures, it’s safe to assume that they also lost reading, writing and other skills. None of this is irreversible – or unique to Kenya – but it does starkly illustrate the learning mountain that the most vulnerable learners around the world now need to climb.

There are also significant groups of Kenyan children who remain out of school. These include adolescent boys who joined the workforce during school closures and adolescent girls who became pregnant. Other groups of out-of-school children include children with disabilities and those from poorer families. There have also been drops in pre-primary enrolment, which is the foundation for life-long learning and development.

So what can be done? In the short term, we need a remedial programme to help affected children catch up from learning loss. In the longer term, education system reform is needed, including improved access to digital and remote learning. To this end, UNICEF’s ‘Reimagine Education’ initiative is revolutionising learning and foundational skills, to provide a quality education for every child through Internet connectivity, digital learning and engagement.

The growth of technology and online learning tools means we now have the power to deliver education anywhere, at any time. But more than half the world’s children are on the wrong side of the digital divide, without access to these opportunities. A modern education should rebuild the basic skills that have been lost during school closures – maths, reading and writing – as well as developing the skills in problem solving, creativity and critical thinking that young people need to forge successful careers. This is why at UNICEF we believe that digital learning should be part of a basic package of essential services for every child.

Here in Kenya, the new Competency Based Curriculum will provide school children with many of these skills. The Government has also committed to connecting every school to the Internet by 2030, ensuring that every student has access to digital learning. Kenya is a leader in GIGA, a global partnership for school connectivity, and UNICEF has already connected 75 schools to the Internet, with a plan to connect at least 1,085 more this year, reaching over 360,000 children. It may be a drop in the ocean compared to the needs, but valuable lessons are being learnt – and more partners are urgently needed to expand this work.

Next week, Kenya and the UK will co-host the Global Education Summit. This will be a key moment for the global community to come together and support quality education for all children. As part of this, world leaders will be asked to make five-year pledges to support the Global Partnership for Education’s work to help transform education systems in up to 90 countries, including Kenya.

So as we applaud the resilience and determination of our children who are back in school and learning, we should not lose sight of these longer-term objectives. I look forward to a future where every Kenyan child has the opportunity to access blended learning, combining the best features of in-person and virtual learning. Our children deserve nothing less than a world class education – let’s make sure they get one.

By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative to Kenya