The Guardian reports:
More than two out of every three pupils who have finished two years of primary school in east Africa fail to pass basic tests in English, Swahili or numeracy, according to a new report, Are our children learning?.
The differences in performance vary both across and within countries:
The report found large differences in average test scores between countries in east Africa. Kenyan pupils perform best in literacy and numeracy. Ugandan children perform worst in the lower school years, but slowly overtake Tanzanian children and outperform them after six years in school.
But it is the within-country differences that are cause for a rethink of education policy in east Africa. Kids in private schools appear to do much better than those in public schools (the gap is most stark in Tanzania, 28 percentage points). The Ugandan school system appears to be the worst, with barely half of EVEN the private school kids passing.
In a finding likely to fuel the debate on public versus private schools, the report said students in private schools perform better than pupils in state schools in all three countries – a difference particularly marked inTanzania, where the pass rate among 10 to 16-year-olds for numeracy and literacy tests was 47% in state schools, compared with 75% in private schools.
“In part, the difference between Tanzania and the other countries is likely to be driven by the much smaller share of pupils attending private schools, even among the non-poor, suggesting they must be particularly selective,” said the report. In Kenya, the pass rate in private schools was 83%, compared with 75% in government schools, while in Uganda the gap was 53% to 36%.
As a product of the Kenyan public school system (and a Wazimba for life), I believe that public schools are the way to go. With some thought and innovation, public schools can be made to work – and in the process serve as the best chance for inter-generational SES mobility. The debate should be about how to improve public schools, as opposed to over the false choice of quantity vs. quality.
A possible model could be something akin to the Kenyan National Schools concept in which select schools across the country get extra resources not only to boost performance but also to act as testing grounds for new learning tools – which can then inform policy to help “Provincial Schools” catch up. Of course this would ineluctably create a multi-tier school system at the beginning, but it is arguably better than a system in which most (if not nearly all, see Uganda and Tanzania) public schools are failing.
It is important to note that in Kenya the best high schools have historically been public. With investment and openness to experimentation and innovation this tradition can be maintained.