Innovate to end Kenya’s Covid-19 education crisis


One less year to save for retirement. One less year to save for marriage. One year of heightened uncertainty. One year of limited skills development. One year lost. As our primary and secondary school students across the nation miss an entire year of schooling, being forced to repeat the whole academic year and restart in January 2021 while missing the 2020 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education(KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education(KCSE) examinations, one could compare the situation to a faltered road trip.

If going on a long journey, imagine that the Nairobi-Nakuru highway is closed between Naivasha and Nakuru due to some natural disaster. But you really need to get from Nairobi to Eldoret for an important business meeting. If you fail to attend the meeting, a major distributor will not include your products into their line up and your business will suffer immensely.

Would a logical person neglect attending the meeting due to the road closure? Absolutely not. You would take one of many alternate routes. You could go from Nairobi to Mai Mahiu to Narok to Kisii and up and around past Kisumu and Kakamega to Eldoret or Nairobi to Nyeri to Nakuru then onwards to Eldoret. You could also fly from Nairobi to Eldoret direct.

But what if the government refused anyone reaching Eldoret with an announcement: if everyone cannot get to Eldoret through Nairobi-Nakuru Highway, then no one will get to Eldoret through any means at all. Does this mean the government is doing a good job? Alternatively, does it mean that the government has become overly obsessed with only one way to reach Eldoret?

In our businesses and our personal circumstances, when life doles out a roadblock, we find alternative ways to go around or remove the roadblock. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education’s obsession with examinations rather than actual learning or child welfare will irreparably harm this generation of Kenyan children.


Social scientists John Mayer and Peter Salovey studies find that standardised examinations are largely useless predictors of a child’s future success anyway. Despite the many initiatives to help primary and secondary school children keep learning in the midst of the public health crisis, from television and radio courses to paper booklets to online Zoom and Teams classes to one-on-one tutoring with Pata Tutor to online resources from Kytabu Ltd, parents clamour to keep their kids engaged while the ministry insists on outdated bureaucratic convergent rather than divergent thinking with ineffective solutions in a crisis and forcing, like in the above example, no one to proverbially reach Eldoret through any other means.

In addition to the broad future life challenges as a result of children’s KCPE and KCSE delay, there also exists substantial learning challenges. Long established research shows that even schooling breaks of only three months hold serious affects on student retention of past learning and skills already acquired as children’s minds get out of learning and study mode. Harris Cooper postulates that breaks in education hold profound negative effects on student learning. He reasons that children learn best when their learning instruction is continuous. Pauses in education breaks the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires significant review time of material when students eventually return to school.

Harris Cooper, Barbara Nye, Kelly Charlton, James Lindsay, and Scott Greathouse found that the effect of three-month study breaks was more detrimental for math skills than for reading skills and the most detrimental for math computation and spelling. The researchers also discovered that for every three months break, it takes children a full month to relearn what their brains forgot. Since in Kenya, our students would have been on a nine-month break by January 2021, then an entire three months must be spent re-teaching students the previous material instead of forging ahead with new content and learning.

Interestingly, researchers Rose Allinder, Lynn Fuchs, Douglas Fuchs, and Carol Hamlett uncovered that the negative impacts from short three-month breaks depends on the age of the children. Their results show that Standard 2 and Standard 3 children lost considerable ability in spelling during each three-month break but not in mathematics. Conversely, Standard 4 and Standard 5 children lost substantial math skills but not spelling. Essentially, our elongated break from learning comes with substantial nuanced detriment to our kids’ future learning.

Yes, Covid-19 is real and has produced devastating effects on millions of families. Yes, Covid-19 is dangerous, especially for at risk populations. But even medical doctor Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser, said last week that "the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small", but missing classes, learning, and lessons "damages children in the long run". Further, the World Health Organisation states that it is unlikely that a successfully tested vaccine with enough protective efficacy will reach wide circulation by January 2021. Therefore, would Kenyan primary and secondary school students miss a second year of schooling if the coronavirus vaccine does not come until the middle or end of 2021? So would the missed 2020 KCPE and KCSE examinations realistically then occur in 2022?

Let us develop divergent thinking solutions. Kenyan media are full of commentators with numerous creative ideas. Surely, we can implement some of them instead of doing virtually nothing. Some widely floated options include letting some students who feel they are ready to go ahead and take KCPE and KCSE anyway; delay KCPE and KCSE by just a few months; families in off network areas form study groups for their children to keep them learning and still take a slightly delayed KCPE and KCSE; follow the American model and do away with wildly unfair and ineffective primary and secondary standardised completion examinations.

We could also allow onward entry to secondary schools without KCPE; allow onward provisional entry to the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVETs), colleges, and universities without KCSE and let those institutions determine the entry suitability of students based on other and earlier criteria like what occurs in Canada and the United States; or allow provisional entry into secondary school or tertiary institutions and take the KCPE or KCSE later, but let students’ credits earned during this pandemic period transfer. Many other ideas have also been put forth in public discourse across Kenya.

But students need a more immediate goal. They need motivation to keep learning from home in creative ways even where network and bundles are a challenge. All Kenyans, except the Ministry of Education, seem to agree that children must not lose a year of their lives. Let us harness the same creativity that made us the Silicon Savanah and the African hotbed of entrepreneurship to come up with innovative solutions instead of clinging to outdated senseless standardised completion examinations the put useless roadblocks in our children’s futures.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on @ScottProfessor