The Arc Light School Bag image for The Challenges of Education in Kenya - and the Solution

Education in Kenya - Challenges and the Solution

Why were students with full-ride scholarships experiencing hardships in school, with some even dropping out?

After providing resources to tackle challenges in education, including utilizing Tech in Education with a focus on Project based Learning, Peer Teaching/ Jigsaws and Gamified Learning, we at The Arc Light, have come to the conclusion that challenges in education stem from disenfranchising communities from their role in education.

Sadly, "it takes a village to raise a child" is no longer the case.

Maasai African Children without classrooms being taught in the open

The earliest school in the country was established in 1846 by missionaries in an area called Rabai located at the Kenyan Coast. Community-led learning however, had been in practice as attested by the discovery of a historical document dated 1728 of the Swahili manuscript “Utendi wa Tambuka” (Book of Heraclius) During the colonial period, education for the native population was not a priority of the British colonial government, but after independence, primary and secondary school enrollment expanded markedly. And despite the considerable progress on education access and participation, there are children and youth who are still out of school. This issue has steadily grown and is now a learning crisis.

Every year, and without fail, professionals are tasked with investigating and providing recommendations in regard to the quality, substance, delivery, and the state of education in Kenya. Most research is focused on, and addresses challenges inside the classroom. After which, learning materials are provided; temporary teachers are hired by school boards to raise the learner-teacher ratio; the government offers subsidies, among other reforms and interventions. Evidently, this is the most apparent approach of solving the education issue. We even came to the same conclusion at The Arc Light: kids who can’t afford school fees would overcome life’s challenges if their school fees was paid in full.

But education is just one aspect in the life of a student. The above interventions would not offer total success if things such as diet; physical health and mental health; clean water and sanitation; family setting and others, weren’t factored.

This post shares in brief, how we initially approached the education issue, and how we are tackling it following the impact measurement activity we performed. By broadly exploring the history of education in Kenya and the challenges in the education landscape, we hope to shed light on some workable solutions to these challenges.

After supporting members of our community by paying school fees, we did a follow-up and performed an impact assessment of the program, unearthing a troubling trend: Why were students with full-ride scholarships experiencing hardships in school, with some even dropping out?

You’re a girl who just hit puberty, your family is struggling to provide basic necessities like food, so items such as soap or sanitary products are a luxury and all along, you’ve been told that education provides opportunities and opens doors, but after you join High School, you experience the toughest and most frustrating moments of your life. For students not in boarding schools, and during each and every school day, a long trek to school awaits you; barefoot and in the dewy morning cold. Then on the way to school one day, you meet some of your age mates who’d dropped out of school. Some are working as casual laborers in nearby farms, others are married, one girl is even pregnant. But all of them seem to be doing better— at least they all have shoes on their feet. So one day you and a few of your friends skip classes to go and work on the farm. Some students return to class the next week while others do not, attracted by the chance to make a little money, or often lured into teenage marriages or promises of what looks like a better life.

You can be enrolled in the best local school that is staffed by awesome and professional teachers, but if there are issues which persistently bug you, affecting your physiological and mental well-being, you will struggle to understand anything in class and you will ultimately underperform academically.


Our solution to this issue came about from consultations with school staff and local communities. They are closer to the problem, it made sense for them to define the issue and identify a solution informed by individual needs and local contexts.

The Arc Light School Bag image for The Challenges of Education in Kenya - and the Solution

The History

In 1967, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, formed the East African Community. The three countries adopted a single system of education which consisted of 7 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education, 2 years of high school and 3–5 years of university education. Since then, commendable and massive efforts have been put in place to promote basic education in Kenya, but certain challenges such as poverty, teen pregnancies, drug use among others, still abound.

In 2008, the national secondary education expansion program was put in place. This program reduced school fees at the secondary level and increased class sizes, thereby expanding access. This policy resulted in an increase of educational attainment by women and reduced the chance of first marriage at age 16 by 40%. Higher education for women is associated with benefits for both women and their future children.

Education in public High Schools in Kenya is subsidized by the Government; kids join at around the age of fourteen and the program lasts for four years. However, parents are still expected to meet the cost of uniforms, learning materials, meals, extracurricular activity fees, transport as well as sundry expenses in relation to school development projects.

With many Kenyans living below the poverty line, this is a big expense. Unfortunately, parents who cannot afford to pay these levies and fees often have their children drop out of school. To pressurize parents to pay fees, schools often send children home during the final exams. Although the enrollment trends keeps going up, completion rates have consistently been below the half mark due to high dropout rates.

The Challenges

After more than a year of COVID-19 lockdown, when schools reopened in January 2021, 16% of girls and 8% of boys did not return to school. A multiplicity of factors, including the inability to pay school fees, have held children back from attaining an education.


A teacher in Kenya impacts the lives of many children by providing more than just academic knowledge. They are the crucial support system and possibly the only option available to students seeking a compassionate ear or those in need of help. Educators teach life-long essential life skills and yet, they are the most underpaid profession in Kenya! When teachers feel undervalued or disrespected by the system, these feelings might encourage cases of teacher absenteeism or disengaging from their vocation, ultimately leading them to quit the profession. This also demoralizes learners who would have wanted to become teachers, ultimately contributing to the shortage of future teachers. Understaffed institutions plus overworked teachers results in highly energetic, but bored and disengaged students, setting the stage for delinquent behavior among students such as arson in schools, riots, and drug use. When such pressures become too much for school kids, self-harm or loss of life may result. 

African Child studying under a tree out in the open

Following the introduction of free Primary School Education and subsidized High School education, the increased number of students exerted a lot of pressure on the existing infrastructure. With overstretched facilities, cases of students learning under trees and makeshift tents have worryingly become a common sight in many parts of the country. Overcrowding of classrooms results in reduced or zero, 1-on-1 interaction between learners and teachers. The average learner to teacher ratio in Nairobi County is as high as 50:1. Based on land area, the culturally rich Turkana County is the largest county in Kenya. This arid region is also the poorest in Kenya. Located on the north-westernmost region of the country, and bordering Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, Turkana County has a staggering average learner to teacher ration of 92:1


In some cases, children have to travel long distances to get to school. Some schools are also not inclusive of persons living with disability.

Gender and Culture:

In Kenya, and in other parts of Africa too, a poor family will send a few children to school while the rest stay at home. Girls, older siblings, relatives living with or supported by extended family and orphans are most likely to be left out. Lucy, one of the girls we interviewed, checks all four! 

Although Kenya and some other African countries are making huge steps in eradicating this disparity, some communities still hold traditional beliefs that claim that no value is gained by providing an education to girls. Other cultural practices such as early and often forced marriage or Female Genital Mutilation are contributing factors.

Among disadvantaged families, there are girls who don’t attend classes due to lack of sanitary towels. These girls are forced to stay back home for at least a week so that they can get through their menses. This causes some of these girls to fail their exams because they missed lessons. As a result they may end up dropping out due to poor results or low self esteem. Gender-based violence is also another issue that mostly affects women. 


In regions located along territorial borders, especially those neighboring conflict zones, education is severely impacted. Most children in such areas either drop out of school for fear of attacks or for fear of kidnappings to be forced to become child soldiers or as part of sex trafficking. Teachers, on the other hand, refuse to work in these areas because of fear of attacks or because of the hardships associated with climate, distance or lifestyle changes and the struggle to adapt.

The Solution

Before the pandemic, the Kenyan Government embarked on ambitious reforms which sought to improve the quality of education through several approaches; a competency-based curriculum (CBC), reforming professional teacher development, textbook policy, and management practices at the local level.

Kenya as a country recognizes that education is key to empowering the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals in society. The Constitution of Kenya, identifies education as a basic right for all children. A quality educational experience helps promote mutual respect and intercultural understanding between people by promoting empathy, tolerance, and inclusivity thus altering behavior and perceptions. Education also empowers and promotes economic freedom. Sustainable Development Goal 4 states that everyone should have access to inclusive, equitable and quality education that promotes lifelong learning.

In 2017, Kenya's education system was rated as the strongest among other forty three mainland countries on the African continent by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In 2018, the World Bank ranked Kenya as the top African country for education outcomes.

In recent times, the Kenyan Government has initiated articulate programs aimed at tackling problems associated with education in Kenya. Stakeholders are engaged, and hard at work enforcing full implementation of education policies, improved accountability, training of more teachers, improved infrastructure, and investment in technology.

But most of the problems affecting education in Kenya are rooted in poverty and inequality. The issues affecting education can be traced back to when we started disenfranchising the community from their role in safeguarding a wholesome education. And as stated earlier, The Arc Light’s response to this issue was arrived at, following consultations with school staff and local communities. They are closer to the problem, it made sense for them to define the issue and identify a solution informed by individual needs and local contexts. Education can not, and does not exist in isolation from the other socio-economic processes of the country. Some outlier organizations have realized this, and have taken similar approaches by providing school uniforms and shoes to students on a yearly basis. Others freely offer hygiene products, counseling spaces, healthcare and medicine through local clinics, or clean water projects specifically for schools. All of these bring caregivers, educators, social workers and community members closer to learners, helping to identify issues that have been narrowly missed by mainstream interventions, especially those traditionally offered by governments. Sometimes the best and most inclusive solutions are community-led.

We even arrived to the same conclusion when we tackled a related issue: mental health challenges among children and young people! Mental health is invincible but its effects are devastating. A
s a country, we only have approximately 100 psychiatrists for a population of 45 million— that’s 1 psychiatrist to 450,000 people! Additionally, some interventions like the WHO approved PM+ are excellent, but are prohibitively designed for adults. Cases of mental health challenges affecting children and young people have shot up. The most common cases result from post trauma and are cross-linked to emotional abuse, sexual assault, neglect, physical abuse among others. Other cases may manifest as anxiety or stem from personality disorders or struggles with substance or alcohol addiction, internet or social media addiction, gambling addiction or others.

Today, the prevalence of these issues in society has sadly resulted in suicidal ideation and the premature loss of life. At The Arc Light, we realized that a school setting provided the ideal ground to identify, address and manage mental health conditions among the youth. It all starts with a support system built around a compassionate approach that places nonjudgmental heartfelt conversation at the core. This was achieved through an age-appropriate training program that dispensed with internalized bias and stigma; acknowledged struggles; was conversational; used honest communication; advocated healthy choices; and confronted all the scary stuff. Community or school-wide efforts should be put in place to educate the youth about stressors and to raise awareness about the symptoms and signs of mental health conditions and the importance of seeking help.

Those and other related approaches offer a well-rounded educational experience and address student welfare by first solving problems that are out of the classroom. By maintaining focus on a student's needs, and once basic needs and essentials are met, and school fees are cleared, its all open road towards a brighter future. At The Arc Light, impact investing means investing in people and creating opportunities. Opportunities level out the playing field; opportunities provide hope and contribute to reduced inequalities; opportunities empower communities and promote growth. The root cause of poverty is inequality and a lack of opportunities.

"It takes a village to raise a child" is a proverb that means that an entire community of people must provide for, impart knowledge and interact positively with children for these children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment.

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