Significant reform is under way to make the Kenyan education system more efficient and better able to train workers for the modern economy. The government is upgrading the curriculum, expanding coverage and placing an added focus on technical and vocational education and training (TVET). With pressing demand created by a growing population, another key focus is on improving access and quality across the system. While long-term prospects are positive, fast-paced changes have brought a degree of uncertainty, with some participants and observers raising doubts about the costs and effectiveness of the incoming framework.

Room for Improvement

Kenya is one of the best-educated countries among its economic peers in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank. Since the first comprehensive National Literacy Survey was taken in 2006, literacy rates have risen from 61.5% of the adult population over the age of 15, to an estimated 78.7% in 2014. This rise is especially pronounced within female literacy rates, which have grown from 30% in 1979 to 74.9% in 2015, according to US government estimates. However, some metrics of achievement indicate shortfalls in recent years. According to the World Bank, 70% of third-grade students failed to read at a second-grade level in 2015, with the issue exacerbated in rural areas. Meanwhile, only 11.4% of the 611,000 students who took their secondary school exams in 2017 qualified for a university place. Calls for improvement in the system have also pointed to a mismatch between the skills students graduate with and those required to fill private sector jobs. “The quality of education needs to become a major focus,” Eldah Onsomu, principal policy analyst for the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, told OBG. “We have to link education to the labour markets to address the long-standing skills gap.”


Since Kenya gained independence in 1963, a number of structures have been developed to guide the education system. From 1964 to 1985 the 7-4-2-3 system was introduced, involving seven years of primary education, four years of lower secondary, two years of upper secondary and three years of university. The curriculum lasted for 20 years but was phased out in favour of one that focused less on formal academics and more on training students for a labour market that was beginning to embrace technology.

In 1985 the 8-4-4 system, with eight years of primary education, four years of secondary education and four years of university, was adopted to address the gaps of the previous structure; however, it too became the subject of criticism for producing a disproportionate number of white-collar workers, while ignoring sectors generally associated with driving growth, such as agriculture, fishing and construction.

New Curriculum

Recognising the growing importance of an inclusive and skills-based education, the 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum – involving two years of pre-primary; six years of primary schooling; six years of secondary, split into two, three-year programmes; and three years of higher education – was piloted in 470 schools between May and September 2017, with a special emphasis on providing access to special needs students. The system adds an additional two years of secondary school, and instead of sitting cumulative exams, students are evaluated through continuous assessment tests. The new curriculum will also see the addition of new subjects at all levels aimed at developing students beyond academics. Once students enter the senior secondary level, they will be able to choose from three fields of specialisation: arts and sports science; social sciences; or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, depending on their interests and talents. From here, graduates will be able to enter vocational or university education. The 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum is expected to be fully in place by 2027.

However, with the overhaul have come new challenges centred mainly around capacity and logistics. According to the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), there are questions as to whether teachers at the country’s schools are prepared to implement the new programme, with one in five teachers at all public and private lower primary schools reporting not being ready in June 2018. This comes on the back of a rollout postponement in January 2018 for the same reasons. The KICD recommended the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) provide educators with training sessions to bridge capacity gaps, as well as adequate amounts of relevant teaching materials.

Education for All

At the same time, the country has been working to achieve a free universal education system. Free primary education was introduced in 2003, with impressive results. Net enrolment went from under 65% that year to almost 90% by 2010, according to MEST. However, coupled with the effects of natural population growth, some challenges emerged as schools were not prepared to handle the increase in student numbers. The total number of primary students rose by about 40% from 2000 to 2017.

Efforts to boost secondary enrolment were expanded under the administration of former President Mwai Kibaki, which introduced tuition-free secondary school in 2008, and in 2010 mandated that every child in Kenya has a right to free and compulsory basic education. However, the government’s budget for secondary education has been increased just once since 2008 and has not kept up with inflation, meaning parents often have to pay a significant portion of the school expenses, such as lunches, wages for non-teaching staff, uniforms and supplies, according to local media.

The government of President Uhuru Kenyatta has promised to do away with all costs of attending public secondary schools and increase the percentage of students advancing from primary to secondary school from the current 75% to 100% in the near term. Implementing the free basic primary and secondary education plan completely as pledged by President Kenyatta will pose several challenges for the government. According to local media reports, secondary schools can only accommodate around 80% of current primary school students, necessitating the construction of 4000 new classrooms and 740 laboratories, as well as additional school infrastructure.

Even without the cost of building additional infrastructure, the 2018 education budget falls short of financial needs. The estimated costs of making secondary education completely free, including uniforms, lunches and other costs, comes to KSh36,800 ($360) per student, or around KSh100bn ($979.8m) in total, according to figures published by MEST. In the 2016/17 academic year, the budget for secondary provision was KSh33.7bn ($330.2m), with estimates it would rise to KSh39.4bn ($386m) the following year. Financing concerns peaked in July 2018 when protests broke out due to the government’s failure to release the KSh6.3bn ($61.7m) required to keep secondary schools running.

Union Views

Other reforms are facing issues. The Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) and Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers have opposed a plan to merge the administrations of primary and secondary schools. Under a Cabinet directive signed in December 2017 the merger is being undertaken to create synergy between learning resources, infrastructure and facilities between the two divisions; however, some have argued that the decision contravenes the Education Act, which calls for primary and secondary schools to be registered as separate entities.

A strike was called for on September 1, 2018 by KNUT after 100 teachers quit their jobs in protest of a delocalisation policy introduced in 2017, forbidding teachers from working in their home counties. The strike will also focus on a number of concerns including the teacher appraisal system and plans to require all students at public schools wear the same uniforms. The union is also asking for better resources, noting that some schools are not equipped with IT equipment, meaning teachers must use internet connections outside of school grounds to complete required paperwork online. In August 2018 President Kenyatta said that the delocalisation policy would be reviewed to make sure it does not break up families; however, the spate of resignations comes at a time when teachers are already spread thin on the ground. Wilson Sossion, the secretary-general of KNUT, told local media that some 104,000 teachers were needed to address the shortage in primary and secondary schools, with the Teachers Service Commission breaking the requirement into 40,972 primary and 63,849 secondary school teachers.


Despite the state’s push for free universal basic education, a growing middle class and the perception of private schools as providing a higher quality of education has contributed to a boom in such institutions. According to data released by Twaweza, an African education survey company, one in four households reported having a child in one of the country’s 1350 private schools operating in the 2017/18 academic year; in Nairobi, about half of all children of primary school age attend private schools. Places in international schools are especially valued. “With the Kenyan middle class growing, more want an international education,” Scott Webber, principal at GEMS Cambridge International School in Nairobi, told OBG. “Kenya needs to further position itself as a regional destination for education. There is some interest from international investors but the trend is not so pronounced yet.”

Within the private sector, institutional funding and private donations support a segment of affordable schools offering tuition at levels accessible to low-income populations. Bridge International Academies, for example, raised $140m in investment from private donors and the International Finance Corporation. Such schools are seen a good investment by parents, despite the financial implications. A survey conducted by US non-profit research group RTI International found that although private school fees for one child can cost upwards of 12% of the household budget, the quality of education remained the top concern in school choice, followed by cost and proximity.

Higher Education

The challenge of meeting the needs of the labour market is perhaps even more acute at the tertiary level, as having a university diploma has become increasingly more important. Kenya is home to 30 public and 18 private universities; however, there are not enough places to accommodate growing number of applicants. Though, unlike primary and secondary schooling, there is considerable scope for international education at the tertiary level. In September 2018 China pledged to offer support by providing scholarships to 50,000 students across Africa, with Kenya expected to benefit from this programme. With the exception of France, China makes up the most popular education destination for Kenyan university students. Ukraine is also leveraging its growing position as a preferred higher education destination by advertising its 240 universities directly to students in Nairobi. In cooperation with MEST, Ukrainian officials launched the “Study in Ukraine” initiative to attract potential students.

Technically Speaking

TVET is also being heavily promoted as part of Kenya Vision 2030, the country’s development roadmap introduced in 2008 to transform Kenya into a middle-income country. Bringing the education system in line with the needs of the economy is expected to help address the shortfall of qualified staff in a number of areas, with the workforce requiring some 30,000 technologists, 90,000 technicians and 400,000 craftsmen. In 2018 Kenya was home to 11 national polytechnic institutions and 125 technical and vocational colleges, and had 67 technical vocational centres under development. Opening up TVET schools nationwide will help the government achieve its goal of increasing the number of students in such institutions by 1m per year, bringing the total from 180,000 as of July 2018 to 3.1m students over the medium term. This will include 110,000 new places in polytechnic institutions, 1.4m in technical and vocational colleges and 1.6m in technical and vocational centres. The government also offers sponsorship programmes for TVET students.

The expansion of such programmes will also provide higher education opportunities to the 500,000 students per year who fail to get university places. “Over the next five years, a trend that is likely to emerge is that of students applying for mid-level courses and technical colleges,” Nicholas Letting, vice-chancellor at the Management University of Africa, told OBG.

In line with Kenya’s TVET promotion goals, in January 2018 the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic) and MEST began the second phase of a programme to provide equipment to technical and vocational institutions. The plan will see Avic provide Kenya with a concessionary loan of KSh16bn ($156.8m) to promote training in civil construction, air conditioning, agricultural machinery, welding and electrical engineering, among others. The programme’s initial phase in 2013 saw 10 schools receive KSh3.3bn ($32.3m) in support.


Kenya continues to invest in its educational infrastructure and human resources to better prepare the nation for a transition into a middle-income economy. Although, implementation remains a challenge as funding is limited and the unions are taking a strong stance, overall quality should improve as agreements are reached and the necessary financing is raised.