Why COVID19 is exacerbating educational inequalities in Kenya

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For Kenya’s already fragile education system, the coronavirus pandemic has generate unprecedented challenges for the government, students, and parents. These have already exposed some of the cracks in the system. As the nation begins to grapple with these challenges, a key question arises: How can Kenya’s education system best adapt to a changing world? Relying exclusively on online strategies means that learners from vulnerable households are falling further behind in an education system that already does not favour them.

The impact of COVID19 on education in Kenya

It is nearly three months since the government announced the closure of schools as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19. As a result of the decision, a total of 91,591 learning institutions both public and private were closed, disrupting the school calendar and affecting the learners.  Also impacted were learners with special needs. Given the challenges presented by the coronavirus – and the likely impact of future pandemics – our ability to ensure continuation of learning will depend on the ability to swiftly harness available technology, provide adequate infrastructure and mobilize stakeholders to prepare alternative learning programmes.

The Ministry of Education estimates that there are 16,528,313 learners out of school, from early childhood development education to tertiary students. With less than 10% of learners having access to digital learning materials such computers, iPads, and laptops, while only 18% have access to learning through the internet and 26% have access to electricity in rural areas showing glaring disparities in home learning as shown in Table 1, the situation is far worse when it comes to public schools. Indeed, COVID19 has disrupted the education sector landscape limiting students’ ability to access learning across the country.

Table 1: Percentage Distribution of Conventional Households by Ownership of Selected Household Assets 

Residence Conventional Households Stand-alone Radio Desk Top Computer/ Laptop/ Tablet Functional Television* Analogue Television Internet
Kenya 12,043,016 56.9% 8.8% 40.7% 4.7% 17.9%
Rural 7,379,282 58.5% 3.0% 26.9% 26.9% 6.9%
Urban 4,663,734 54.4% 18.0% 62.5% 62.5% 35.4%

Source: 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census: Volume IV 

In Kenya, school choice is correlated to income level, and public schools differ from private schools in many aspects including the kinds of students that attend them, teacher to student ratios, infrastructure, and funding. The overall effect of these differences means that public schools students are disadvantaged compared to their counterparts. Indeed, even where remote learning opportunities are available, uptake will be low from students in public schools as result of poor infrastructure. Opportunities to learn at home for these students are also limited due to lack of conducive learning environment as many come from households that live in single rooms, and in which there is limited literacy and capacity to hire private tutors.

Moreover, while the school closures are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, the vast majority of students will lose momentum and direction as schools are employing a reactive approach to learning. This approach relies heavily on the role of parents, but there was no proper transition from teachers to parents to enable them to shoulder the burden.

The pandemic will also exacerbate spatial inequalities. With the exception of access to radio which penetrates rural areas more effectively than urban ones, access to computers, televisions, and the Internet is considerably lower in rural contexts (Table 1). These existing divides will be further entrenched if rural learners fall behind their urban counterparts, negatively impacting on their future earning potential.

The public/private divide

The negative consequences of these existing inequalities mean that the impact of the pandemic will be felt disproportionately by students in public schools. The country’s legal framework does not help in this regard. Despite progress in enhancing access, retention, quality and completion rates, the education system still faces major legal and regulatory challenges. Most notably, tere are numerous laws on education that are weak, fragmented and often conflicting. In 2006, the Ministry of Education introduced the National ICT Strategy for Education and Training. It empowers the Kenya Institute of Education to prepare syllabuses, and to publish and print materials on ICT education. KIE is also expected to develop digital curriculum content, provide teacher in-service training, and to develop and transmit distance learning materials. However, inefficient facilities and limited funding have delayed the installation of ICT in schools and colleges.

In the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Education launched a number of steps designed to promote continuity in learning, which included education programming that is broadcasted via television and radio as well as on YouTube. In partnership with the Kenya Publishers Association, the government made electronic copies of textbooks available for free on the Kenya Education Cloud for all students. The Government of Kenya, through the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and in partnership with Telkom Kenya, also deployed Google’s Loon Balloons carrying 4G base stations over Kenyan airspace. However, while these are noble measures designed to make sure that no student is left behind, it remains true that access to these services is patchy and that many children have been unable to benefit, in both urban and rural areas.

How have learners been impacted? 

Despite government efforts, then, the school closures are deepening educational inequality. It is evident that rich families are better prepared to cope with the challenges posed by the crisis and sustain their children’s learning at home. They have access to the Internet and can afford to pay for virtual tutors. All this means that when schooling restarts, disadvantaged children will find themselves even further behind their peers. For students with learning disabilities, and those living in remote areas, the situation is bleak.

This raises a major question about the Kenyan education system when it comes to technology and inequality: how can we support already marginalised learners during school closures to enable them to keep up? If this conundrum cannot be solved, the inequality gap in education will only widen. 

Besides missed learning opportunities, students from poor backgrounds are also losing access to the meals that are made available by World Food Programme (WFP) and the Government of Kenya through The School Feeding Program that was initiated in 2009. It is estimated that in 2018 the government provided access to daily meals to 1.5 million children in 4,000 public schools across the country – all of whom are currently deprived of this service.

Bridging the divide

What is to be done? In order to reach the most vulnerable and excluded children, Kenya must adopt multiple learning modalities ranging from television and radio to WhatsApp/SMS-based mobile platforms that are available to all. With over 59% of the population having access to radios, it would be possible to reach learners left behind by new technology if lessons are provided through this medium.

Whatever strategy the government chooses to pursue, they must ensure that it is cost-effective, available within the home, and easy to use by both learners and their parents – who may have limited literacy. Given this, it will also be essential to provide support to parents so they can help children sustain their engagement with education and learning. This will be particularly challenging because households with low income experienced a sudden collapse of daily incomes when lockdown measures were introduced. In addition to disproportionately impacting on lower income groups, economic downturn has also had a gendered effect, with the government forced to intervene to provide sanitary pads in some cases. This brings home the need not just to make lessons available through multiple formats, but also to consider the impact of the pandemic on the entire household in order to take a holistic approach to promoting educational equality.

While these measures are essential during the pandemic, the challenge will not end with the defeat of COVID19. Once schools begin to reopen, schools will need to be logistically prepared, the teaching workforce ready, and finance available to make up for lost time. In particular, these resources will need to be heavily focussed on supporting the learning recovery of the most disadvantaged students.


Oscar Ochieng holds a BA Degree in Sociology and Communication from the University of Nairobi.

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