More children in schools now but literacy, numeracy skills remain low

Friday May 29 2015

The Uwezo report shows that there are large differences in test results among countries in East Africa and a large difference in pass rates between districts within individual countries. TEA GRAPHIC | NATION MEDIA GROUP

One out of four children in East Africa will not have acquired literacy and numeracy skills by their final year in primary school, a new report says.

A study conducted by Uwezo East Africa in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, shows that only 20 per cent of pupils in East Africa can read and do basic mathematics in the third year of primary school.

This comes at a time when 164 countries, including the East African states, are expected to implement the Education for All initiative they pledged to 15 years ago.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), in a recent report, said that the global focus on universal primary education has diverted attention from other crucial areas, such as education quality, adult literacy and early childhood care.

Despite not meeting the 2015 deadline, millions more children are in school than would have been had the trends of the 1990s persisted. However, the agenda is far from met.

“Without a stronger education foundation, students will lack the skills and know-how needed to become curious, questioning, and informed citizens,” said John Mugo, director of data and voice at Twaweza East Africa.


To avoid a tragic waste of limited financial and human resources, he said, East African countries must make sure that every child who attends school leaves with at the very least basic numeracy and literacy skills.

Sarah Ruto, director of PAL Network, said attending primary school is becoming the norm, but the quality of education remains a challenge.

“Governments should first come up with a mechanism for addressing the issues of teachers’ professionalism, which is lacking in most schools, absenteeism for both teachers and students and a change in school curricula,” she said.

The Uwezo report shows that there are large differences in test results among countries in East Africa and a large difference in pass rates between districts within individual countries.

“Children from poorer households consistently show lower competency learning levels,” says the report.

In the Uwezo survey, data was collected on learning outcomes, school conditions and households in 2013 in every district across the region through citizen-led household-based assessments.

Learning outcomes are assessed among children aged six to 16 through tests set at Standard (or Grade) Two level.

In Kenya, 64 per cent passed in both literacy and numeracy tests, while in Tanzania 48 per cent passed and in Uganda 36 per cent.

“This means that even in Kenya — the best performing country — less than seven out of 10 children (aged 10-16) have mastered Grade Two literacy and numeracy skills,” said Dr Mugo .

The best performing district in East Africa is Mbeya Urban in Tanzania. However, the rest of the top 10 is populated by Kenyan districts, which dominate the upper ranks. Tanzanian districts tend to fall in the middle ranks and Ugandan districts are consistently ranked near the bottom.

“The best performing Ugandan district is ranked 82 in the region. Seven out of the bottom 10 places are taken up by Ugandan districts,” says the report.

Influence of wealth

Wealth also appears to influence learning outcomes. In all three countries, there are large gaps between different wealth groups.

In Kenya, seven out of 10 pupils aged 10 to 16 in non-poor households, and four out of 10 pupils in ultra-poor households passed literacy and numeracy tests.

In Tanzania, just under six out of 10 pupils aged 10 to 16 in non-poor households, and four out of 10 pupils in ultra poor households passed literacy and numeracy tests.

In Uganda, four out of 10 pupils aged 10 to 16 in non-poor households, and two out of 10 pupils in ultra-poor households passed literacy and numeracy tests.

Despite the larger disparities in Kenya, ultra-poor households in the country still, on average, perform better than non-poor households in Uganda.

The report shows that East African children continue to face a crisis in the education system with no significant changes in learning outcomes over the past four years (up to 2013). Enrolment trends are similarly unmoving but have been high since the introduction of universal primary education in the three countries.

Enrolment is high with all three countries having over 90 per cent admission rates. Similarly, gender parity has been achieved in the three countries in terms of access and quality.

There are no marked differences in access to schooling between boys and girls. Sadly, boys and girls perform equally poorly in terms of learning outcomes. However, these are national averages and so conceal geographical variations. Similarly, they do not consider any gender differences in primary school completion or secondary school enrolment.

“The three East African countries remain a long way from recognised and measurable learning outcomes achieved by all,” said Dr Mugo, adding however, that children do seem to be learning general knowledge or life skills: In all three countries, by the fourth round of data collection (2013), at least nine out of 10 children could answer the bonus general knowledge question.

“The large disparities between and within countries, particularly along socio-economic lines, suggest that the region may be becoming more divided. In addition, the lack of meaningful improvements in learning outcomes over the three rounds of Uwezo assessments points to a lack of strong action to tackle our education crisis,” she said.
Aidan Eyakuze, executive director of Twaweza, said the progress made to increase access and gender parity is to be commended.

“However, we must ensure that the national figures do not hide local variations. Although this does not mean we need to abandon or ignore access issues, the data clearly shows that the core focus for East African education over the coming years should be about quality and ensuring that children are in school and learning,” said Mr Eyakuze.

Last year, a Unesco report showed that more than 27 million trained teachers are needed for sub-Saharan Africa to achieve universal primary education by 2030.

The growing demand for teachers is due to the increasing number of school-going children, high attrition and low recruitment rates of teachers. Therefore, almost nine out of 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa will need to create new teaching positions to achieve universal primary education.

“Efforts since 2000 to advance education around the world became almost synonymous with ensuring that every child is in school… Meanwhile, the focus on universal primary enrolment meant less attention to other crucial areas, such as education quality, early childhood care and education, and adult literacy,” the report said.

The draft sustainable development goal (SDG) on education by the UN has 10 targets including quality primary and secondary education for all boys and girls by 2030, equal access to quality early childhood development, and equal access for all women and men to affordable quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university. But an extra $22 billion a year is needed on top of “already ambitious” government contributions to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

“The low education performance levels in East Africa are a general problem in Africa because children are exposed to an overly ambitious curriculum that is very demanding. Governments need to change this and teach children as per their level and not on the curriculum’s expectations,” said Ms Ruto, adding that East African countries need to adopt the trend of changing the school curriculum every five years.

Tanzania, following the poor high school performance registered last year, has changed its curriculum to focus on numeracy and literacy teaching.

Kenya is in the process of restructuring its school curriculum to focus on competence tests.