In his fortnightly column for the Daily Nation, our co-editor Nic Cheeseman explores the importance of education for the developmental and democratic future of Kenya.
Regular readers may remember a piece I wrote about the Kenyan middle class a few months ago. I was motivated to write it by the fact that according to the African Development Bank, in 2011 the Kenyan middle class stood at 6.48 million (16.8 per cent) — the fourth largest in sub-Saharan Africa. What I found was that survey evidence on Kenya suggests that the middle class hold more democratic attitudes than other members of society. For example, Kenyans in full time employment are more likely to reject authoritarian rule than those who are unemployed or not looking for work.
Similarly, wealthier Kenyans are also more likely to prefer a democratic government than those who cannot afford a car or a motorbike. I also reported that more educated Kenyans are more likely to express strong support for political rights and civil liberties than those who only attended primary school. In this way, the “rise of the middle class” can be said to be a boost for the prospects for democratic consolidation.
What I did not know then was which part of being “middle class” made the most difference to the democratic attitudes of Kenyan citizens. It was clear that Kenyans who earned more, were employed, and were more educated, were more likely to hold democratic attitudes. But which of these factors is the most significant?
Education, Education, Education
It turns out that by far the most significant factor in shaping attitudes towards democracy is education. Kenyans that are in formal employment are only 2.8 per cent more likely to support democracy than those who are not. Kenyans who are wealthy — measured by ownership of high cost items such as cars — are just 3.7 per cent more likely to support democracy than those who are poor. But the impact of education is considerable: Moving from the lowest level of education to the highest increases the likelihood that an individual will strongly support democracy from 71.8 to 85.6 per cent (13.8 per cent).
It therefore appears that thinkers such as Seymour Martin Lipset were right when they argued that higher levels of education encourage individuals to have more liberal views, to be more tolerant of dissent, and to be more critical of authoritarian rule.
Some of these characteristics can clearly be seen in the survey responses of more educated Kenyans. For example, the same research found that half as many highly educated Kenyans strongly agree that the president should be free to act (6.4 per cent) as compared to uneducated Kenyans (11.7 per cent). This suggests that more educated citizens are more appreciative of the value of a system of political checks and balances.
More educated Kenyans also have more liberal views in other ways. A good illustration of this is the fact that highly educated Kenyans are considerably less likely to agree that the government should have a right to ban organisations it dislikes (23.2 per cent to 31.1 per cent). They are also far more likely to think that multi-party politics is a good thing (68 per cent), in contrast to the majority of uneducated Kenyans who see parties as divisive (51 per cent).
It may seem that the differences in some of these cases are quite small, but the cumulative effect of these factors should not be underestimated. We know that on average women tend to be a little less supportive of democracy than men in Kenya, while older citizens are more likely to support democracy than younger ones.
If we put all this together, we find that it has quite a dramatic effect: While 66.7% of poorly educated 18-year-old women are likely to strongly support democracy, this rises to an overwhelming 91.8 per cent of highly educated 65-year-old men.
Primary school education
This means that there are even more good reasons to invest in education. So how does Kenya fare when it comes to educating its citizens? So far as the primary school level is concerned, the answer is “not bad”. The move to free primary education has resulted in an increase in school enrolment rates from around 82 per cent to around 90 per cent. Although completion rates remain relatively low, they have steadily improved from around 70 per cent in 2003 to over 80 per cent today.
The quality of education on offer at the primary level also stands up when viewed in regional perspective. The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) looks at the performance of education in 15 countries Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The most recent data available comes from 2007, which looked at 61,396 schools and 8,026 teachers in some 2,779 schools. As part of the assessment, students had to answer a range of questions on topics such as mathematics and reading. According to SACMEQ, the reading scores of pupils in Kenya were the fourth best in the sample, behind Mauritius, Seychelles, and Tanzania, but above Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Kenya also performs fairly well when it comes to mathematics, ranking second behind only Mauritius. This is despite the fact that Kenyan students still struggle for access to textbooks – only 17.8 per cent of students had sole use of a textbook, compared to 63.4 per cent in Botswana and 87.7 per cent in Mauritius.
The problems really start as students get older, and come to a head at secondary school level. Although there are more 13-year-old girls in education than 13-year-old boys, from the age of 14 onwards, boys increasingly outnumber girls. This is just one aspect of a broader trend in which only around a quarter of young people of secondary school age attend school.
This all leads to a fairly straightforward conclusion. Kenya has made great strides recently when it comes to expanding primary school education. In time, this will generate a more literature population, and one in which the inequality between men and women will be reduced.
Credit needs to be given where it is due. But much more now needs to be done to realise the potential benefits that education can reap. Girls need to be supported to attend school when they are 14, 15 and 16, in order to stop the drop off in attendance over the age of 13.
This article was originally published on 21st March in the Daily Nation.