• With the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, the role of early childhood education was assigned to the county governments, bringing the service closer to the people.
• Governors have a huge opportunity to make their mark and ensure the prosperity of future generations.
January 24 marks International Education Day, making it an opportune moment to reflect on Kenya’s education journey and the opportunities and challenges it faces.
Across the world, an estimated 258 million children are locked out of school, while over 600 million teenagers are unable to read or do basic math. For girls across sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 40 per cent will go on to complete lower secondary school.
For many decision-makers across Kenya and Africa alike, the answer is often to build more schools in the belief that all children will benefit. And this is a fair assumption, but it masks a complex reality.
To ensure children do well in school, it is of paramount importance to give them a strong early start in their learning. This ensures holistic development and good positioning as far as their development is concerned. The United Nation Convention on the Right of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children show education, as a basic right, forms one of the most promising elements towards a brighter future for children.
UK non-governmental organisation Theirworld highlights the first five years of a child’s life as the most critical for their development. And by investing in high-quality Early Childhood Development and Education, countries will be providing a platform for children to thrive throughout the entirety of their education. The NGO was set up by Sarah Brown, the wife of the former British Prime Minister and education campaigner Gordon Brown.
With the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, the role of early childhood education was assigned to the county governments, bringing the service closer to the people.
This presents an opportunity for each county to budget and support children's education. Many counties have achieved a lot while others still have an opportunity to ensure ECDE is well budgeted for.
Some of the challenges hindering most counties from achieving this goal include but not limited to financial constraints, teacher-student ratio —in some instances at 40:1 — poor facilities with no books or toys and accessibility of ECDE centres. In some instances, children have to walk long distances without getting healthy snacks to keep their energy up for learning. Nutrition is thus one of the other major challenge, with most counties not having managed to budget for the feeding programme for the entire year.
This is why we need to see counties follow the steps taken by Siaya, Makueni and Kwale, and invest more in ECDE. The three counties, just but to mention a few, have put great focus on early learners and gone ahead to invest in quality learning facilities, with properly ventilated classrooms, safe water, kitchens, furniture and toilets, as well as age-appropriate learning materials.
There is every reason to believe that Kenya can be a beacon for ECDE, setting the agenda across the region, and stepping up for other countries to follow. With 76 per cent of children enrolled in ECDE nationally, the foundation is already in place. The next step is to ensure the most marginalised children — those with disabilities, or affected by HIV-Aids — are prioritised
Kenya also needs to establish itself as a leader in teaching standards. Being an ECDE teacher is its own distinct discipline requiring a different set of skills from teaching at primary and secondary school level. Play-based learning, whether it’s through singing, storytelling, or providing the space for children to explore their own creativity and imagination is integral to a child’s development. With it, children will develop crucial cognitive and socio-emotional, and motor development skills that are the foundation of good literacy and numeracy.
The imbalance in literacy rates in Kenya between children in rural and urban areas demonstrates why those from the poorest communities need high-quality ECDE the most.
Literacy rates in Nairobi and Kiambu are much higher than in counties such as Turkana, Wajir and Garissa. As Unicef has evidenced, high-quality ECDE is crucial for ensuring all children have the opportunity to learn and thrive. Importantly, ECDE increases the chance of children completing primary school.
With a national literacy rate of just over 65 per cent, Kenya still has some work to do and this means stepping up investment in ECDE. In 2015, the country spent 1.8 per cent of its overall education budget on pre-primary. Theirworld is calling on governments across the world to increase investment to 10 per cent of education spending.
Devolution presents a greater opportunity to improving the situation of early learners, but this starts with the leadership. As the World Bank and others have highlighted, investment in the early years of education pays off, with every dollar spent yielding a return of $17 dollars in the long-term.
This gives us a pause for thought on International Education Day. If there is one investment in education that will improve the lives of children in Kenya, then spending more on ECDE is surely it. This means being brave. But it is also the best way of meeting our international commitments to ensuring all children receive an inclusive and equitable education.
At the dawn of a new decade, governors have a huge opportunity to make their mark and ensure the prosperity of future generations.
The writer is an education expert specialising on ECDE