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Conditions for the Educational System in Kenya

Holistic Think Tank

Kenya is a lower-middle-income country with a population of 47 million as of 2020, a gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately USD 100 billion, and a GDP per capita of USD 1100. By 2018, Kenya had a literacy rate of 82% (World Bank) – with approximately 16.5 million students in schools. The education system in Kenya is divided into three categories; primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary education in Kenya is basic and compulsory for all children of 6-13 years. Secondary education is not compulsory, but it is mandatory for all students who qualify to proceed after excelling in national exams. 

Nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s student population is in the primary level stage, with approximately 10 million students in primary schools (KNBS). The expected study time for basic education is eight years for primary education and four years for secondary education, with approximately 3.5 million students under the 8-4-4 curriculum. However, with the introduction of the Competence-Based Curriculum, which is under implementation together with 8-4-4, and is projected to replace the latter in 2027, the basic study time is eleven years.

Schools are categorized as either private or public. 68% of the total school enrollment is in public institutions while private schools absorb the remaining 32%. Public primary schools absorb 72% of the primary student population while private schools account for the rest.  Public schools are funded by the government and private ones are owner-established. Most schools are located within urban setups thus making rural and remote areas disadvantaged. Despite the high population of students in the country, the public institutions are not enough to cater to all students. 

Infrastructure and allocation of resources are disproportionally distributed in favor of public schools. The government of Kenya, through the Ministry of Education and other state agencies, channel most of their allocated resources for development projects which include classrooms, electricity connections, access roads, and security towards developing and improving public institutions as opposed to private schools. The government allocates funds to offshoot tuition costs, offer subsidies in education programs and learning materials, and other expenses for students in public schools, unlike their private counterparts. Students in private schools are therefore disadvantaged and isolated by the government policy of Equity and Equality for all in the education sector. However, the most affected are private schools in peri-urban, rural and informal settlement areas, which cannot be at par with their elite counterparts in urban areas.


Kenya’s educational system is based on two historical development stages; pre-independence and post-independence. The pre-independence period dates back to the European exploration in Africa with the establishment of the East Africa Protectorate and later on the Kenyan colony. This period is attributed to the introduction of a formal and organized educational system in Kenya. The post-independence educational development stage relates to the reforms introduced after Kenya gained independence from the British occupiers on December 12, 1963. The post-independence is the most significant period in the development and conditioning of Kenya’s educational system. Self-rule responsibilities required knowledge, skills, and expertise to cater to the development needs of the nation after the British rulers’ departure.

2.1 Pre-Independence System

The genesis of educational conditioning and development in Kenya can be traced back even before the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial masters in the 19th and 21st centuries. The arrival of missionaries and the need to make and train converts laid the foundation of education in Kenya. They would later be tasked with a bigger responsibility by their colonial counterparts to educate Africans after the introduction of formal western education in the country. The missionaries taught basic rudiments like reading, writing, and arithmetic which were essential for communication considering the diverse cultural backgrounds between Africans and Europeans.

A turning point of the educational landscape in Kenya was in 1903 when heightened campaigns by colonial administrators encourage their fellow countrymen to settle in Kenya. The white settlers demanded better education for their children leading to the formation of the Fraser Commission of 1908 which introduced education on racial lines (Mackatiani et al, 2016). The policy became the baseline for African education offered in British colonies and the curriculum endorsed at the time promoted industrial education. Also, the policy formed the basis of government support in education initiatives and grants which were previously the work of missionaries. The policy had two outcomes on the educational landscape in Kenya; to increase productivity on the side of Africans by increasing their labor output and to promote missionary activities by enabling them to get catechists to aid them in their pastoral work. 

2.2 Post Independence System

2.2.1: 7-4-2-3 Curriculum

Self-rule in post-independence Kenya mandated the new administration to come up with new educational reforms which would promote national unity and meet the development needs of the nation. The changes initiated by the regime included expansion of the education system by building more secondary schools, adoption of a unified educational system, the 7-4-2-3 system to abolish racial schools, and an adult education system to facilitate persons with elementary education to participate in nation-building activities (Inyega et al, 2021). These policies advocated by the new post-independence administration acted as a game changer moving away from education landscaped established on racial lines to a unified system meeting the national and economic development needs of Kenya. 

The 7-4-2-3 system adopted after independence consisted of seven years of primary school, four years of lower secondary school( form 1-4), two years of upper secondary (form 5-6) and three years of university education. However, the system did not include pre-primary schooling offered to children less than six years.

2.2.2: 8-4-4 Curriculum

In 1985, new changes to the education system in Kenya were affected. The 8-4-4 system replaced the 7-4-2-3 system. Changing economic landscape where the labor market was diminishing prompted the government of the day to adjust the education policy according to the emerging needs. The system, which is still in use today but in the process of being phased out in 2027 by the newly introduced Competence-Based Curriculum, consists of eight years of primary education, four years of secondary education, and four years of university education. The system also offers pre-primary schooling of 1-2 years to children of ages 3-5 years before they can join primary schools though it is not mandatory. 

The conception of the system was to promote self-reliability and productivity by orienting the youth towards self-employability (Inyega et al, 2021). The policy offered a wide range of practical opportunities and equitable distribution of resources through higher education and the introduction of vocational training schools. However, it proved detrimental to the education sector in the ’90s partly due to cost-sharing policy, the cost of attending school, and the prevailing social problems like droughts and famine, and poverty hence high rates of dropouts in primary levels. Data estimates from an Out-of-School Children Initiative study by the Government of Kenya and UNICEF indicated that about 1.13million of primary school-going age of 6-13 years were out of school as of 2020. However, this changed when free primary education was implemented in 2002. The system has proved burdensome to students who spent more time in school, especially in higher institutions of learning.

2.2.3: Competence Based Curriculum (CBC).

A milestone in Kenya’s education system was the rollout of the competency-based curriculum (CBC) in 2017 by the Ministry of Education.  A policy change was initiated to phase out the 8-4-4 system, which has been in use for more than thirty years through replacement by the CBC system by the year 2027. 

The implementation of the reform has led to the 8-4-4 curriculum being used concurrently with the CBC curriculum, until 2027 when it is projected to be completely replaced by the new curriculum. The new CBC system was developed and researched by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD). It is divided into three categories; early year education (pre-primary and lower primary education), middle school (upper primary and lower secondary), and senior school after which the student can choose to continue with a university education or advance in entrepreneurial activities according to the skills acquired. The new curriculum was designed to offer students a learner-focused, competence-based environment and localized decision-making capabilities, and a greater depth of study as opposed to the much-criticized 8-4-4 system which is teacher-focused and examination-oriented thus limiting the capabilities and flexibilities of the learner. KICD and the Ministry of Education in conjunction with stakeholders have prepared and provided various resources key to the success of the new educational system in Kenya.

Fig.1: Illustration of Competence-Based Curriculum.

*arrow indicates the age at the start of each level in the new CBC curriculum.

Source: Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD).

Transition from one educational stage to the other in Kenya is determined by an external exam. The Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) is the national agency mandated in preparation, monitoring, overseeing and registering students for the exams. These exams include The Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) The Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) for the 8-4-4 system as well as early year exam and middle school assessment for the new CBC system. Professional exams in TVETS offering specific trade studies also offer external exams. 


The legal basis of the education system in Kenya is founded on the Constitution of Kenya (CoK), 2010 under Articles 43.1.b that recognizes that “every person has the right to education” and 53.1.b “every child has the right to free and compulsory education”, Article 237 establishing the Teachers Service Commission among others. Other legislation critical to the education sector includes the Basic Education Act of 2013 implementation of the right to free and compulsory basic education. It provides for the establishment of pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, adult and continuing education centers as well as special and integrated schools for learners with disabilities. 

The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development Act 2013 guides the development, design, and implementation of the educational curriculum to be used in the country. The institute is mandated to research and put in place frameworks that guide the contents, materials, and the specific educational stages the educational system should follow. The Teachers Service Commission Act of 2012 established a single employer and unified teacher terms of service. This Act establishes a Teachers Service Commission, as well as provisions for teacher registration, regulation of the teaching profession, and cancellation of registration in cases of misconduct.  It also provides for the determination of teacher remuneration. Other laws include the Children’s Act of 2001 which requires the government to undertake all the necessary steps to make available free basic education to every child and the Persons with Disabilities Act 2003 which ensures there is equality in the educational sector.

The government of Kenya is tasked with financing the educational sector in the country as per the Basic Education Act of 2013. The government spends 5% of the GDP annually to finance the education sector. Primary schools financing is the biggest consumer of the budget followed by secondary school financing partly due to the provision of free primary school education to all (MOE-NESSP). Also with the formation of devolved units in 2010, some educational tasks were divided between the national and county governments.


Data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics indicate that in the year 2020, there were 16. 5 million learners enrolled in only primary and secondary schools. Two-thirds of these were enrolled into primary schools constituting the biggest cluster of the student population in Kenya.

Table 1: The distribution of schools according to their levels, category, and the total number according to data obtained from the Government of Kenya.

Pre-Primary Schools28,14818,14746,295
Primary Schools23,2469,19132,437
Secondary Schools9,1121,30110,413
TVET Institutions1,3589032,261

                    Source: Kenya Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2020.

Table 2: A table showing the latest student enrollment data by level, released by the government. *The data only indicates enrollment in the primary level which is basic and compulsory, the secondary level which is mandatory after excelling in national examinations, and partially compulsory and pre-primary enrolment. Data for university and tertiary enrolment is not included.

MaleFemaleTotal (‘000)
Pre-Primary Schools1436.913962832.9
Primary Schools5191.44978.710170.1
Secondary Schools1751.51768.93520.4
GRANT TOTAL8379.88143.616523.4

                    Source: Kenya Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2020.

Table 3: A table showing national examination data for primary education (KCPE) by gender for a period of five years (2016-2020), an increase from each previous year, which is a positive indicator towards progressive reforms in the primary education sector. 

Examination Centres25,61126,28427,15727,80728,467
Registered KCPE Candidates

Source: Kenya Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2020.

Table 4: The distribution of teachers per educational level in the education sector in Kenya.

Pre-Primary Schools95,241
Primary Schools218,077
Secondary Schools113,115

                            Source: Kenya Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2020


5.1 Challenges and Strengths

Despite Kenya’s government efforts towards the implementation of educational reforms to achieve education for all, the country is faced with a myriad of social challenges that prevent the achievement of this goal (MOE-NESSP). Poverty, ignorance, exploitation, and cultural practices are the major setbacks facing educational reforms in Kenya. A curriculum should make members useful and productive members of society. 

However, schools in Kenya are faced with high rates of student violence and extremism, especially in the secondary subsector. This has been attributed to heavy school work, inadequate counseling support services, and a lack of skills on the part of teachers.

A curriculum should deal with the social problems facing society. However, drug and substance abuse in schools has become a pertinent issue among school-going children. Most students are likely to start abusing drugs while at puberty at the age of 15. Gender disparities offer a recurring constraint to the education system. Teenage girls of ages 10-19 years are faced with the dangers of early pregnancies which affect learning operations in Kenya. According to data from the KNBS, there were a total of 332,208 teenage pregnancies in 2020 of girls of ages 10-19 years old, though there are doubts the number might be high in reality. Other gender issues include female genital mutilations, gender division of labor, and forced marriages which affect the ability of girls in gaining meaningful education.

Another major social setback in the conditioning and development of education in Kenya is HIV/AIDS (MOE-NESSP). There are approximately 1.5million people living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya whereby approximately 100, 000 children of ages 0-14 years live with the disease by 2020 (UNAIDS, 2021). The disease has widespread and adverse consequences on learning activities among students in Kenya. When parents or members of the community succumb to the disease, there is a risk of school-going children facing the risks of missing basic needs. Learners still engage in unprotected sexual activities exposing them to the risk of HIV infection. Those who are infected by HIV and AIDS face stigma and discrimination and lack adequate family support thus affecting their ability to learn. Child labor also is another pertinent social challenge for school-going children in Kenya affecting children of ages 5-17 years old. However, policies have been put in place to eliminate child labor.

Religion is the backbone of Kenya’s educational development. From a historical perspective and the foundation of education in Kenya, it is of great importance to the social development of the nation. Religion forms the moral and ethical foundations of Kenya’s society whereas shaping the values, beliefs, and a deeper understanding of social and cultural contexts surrounding learners. Therefore, religious classes are part of the school curriculum where learners can choose their preferred religious education of choice considering Kenya has diverse religions (Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism).

The structure of the new curriculum provides the age limit of starting compulsory education. The average age to start lower primary education is 5-6 years. This was meant to close the gap of taking children to school at a very tender age and also to ensure learners complete the compulsory education stages at the required age (18 years) to fit in the labor market.

Most parts of Kenya are arid and semi-arid. Lack of rains, effects of climate change, and poverty has adverse effects on primary education due to lack of food. To bridge this gap, school feeding programs have been rolled out by the World Food Programme (WFP) and with support from the government. The program has benefited 1.6 million students in 4048 schools in the country in 2018 (World Food Programme). School meals programs accelerate primary education enrollment and attendance. Similar programs have been replicated by county governments to encourage learning at the primary levels. 

Apart from just receiving education, the school system in Kenya fosters national unity and cohesion, and talent development. The education systems in Kenya offer co-curricular social activities comprising of sports, music, and drama festivals. The perspective makes learning interesting and a pathway for promoting and acknowledging diversity and national ethos to foster peace and unity in the country.

5.2: Covid-19 and educational landscape in Kenya

The onset of Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 adversely impacted the global arena with every activity almost being grounded. All schools in Kenya were closed unanticipated after reporting the first positive case throwing learning activities into disarray. Learning activities came to a stop and stakeholders began to exploit new ways to teach remotely through the internet and television.

The government’s response to offering alternative learning mechanisms however widened the gap as most learners were excluded from the online system. Unlike developed countries where online learning functioned well, in Kenya lack of access and coverage to the internet and unreliable electricity proved difficult for the online classes. Poverty rates among parents disadvantaged students as they could not afford school-related materials and data for the studies further widening the gap (Gathuru & Mweyeri, 2021). Though KICD tried to save the situation by centralizing its resources to teaching and learning, the initiative was not successive due to inadequate resources and infrastructure. Physical learning resumed at the end of 2020 with final year students and grade four (CBC) resuming classes.

Subsequently, in January 2021, schools resumed but with heightened precautions due to Covid 19. Though no major negative consequences arose curriculum-wise, the school calendar changed drastically and students had a hard time adapting. Learning activities for the primary stage were oriented towards understanding and precautionary measures towards the pandemic.


Education is important in the development process of any country. To be effective, it needs to be clearly defined. Stakeholder ownership, funding, and review to ensure consistency with both local and global needs. Though the Kenyan educational system has changed over time, there is a lot of work that needs to be improved to match the global standards. Stakeholders should invest resources to develop school infrastructure, enact policies and laws to protect vulnerable students to ensure they finish basic education, provide materials needed for efficient learning as well as roll out educational curriculum that resonates well with the needs of the learners at that time. Trainers should be well equipped to offer the best education to learners if the country wants to be at par with other developed nations. Educational planning and reforms should always be tied to the development agenda.


Inyega, J. O., Arshad-Ayaz, A., Naseem, M. A., Mahaya, E. W., & Elsayed, D. (2021). Post-Independence Basic Education in Kenya: An Historical Analysis of Curriculum Reforms. In FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education (Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 1-23). Lehigh University Library and Technology Services. 8A East Packer Avenue, Fairchild Martindale Library Room 514, Bethlehem, PA 18015

Author: Erastus Munyao Robert

Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. Basic Education Curriculum

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