Supporting successful curriculum reform in Kenya

23 February 2023 by Alicia Mills, Girls' Education Challenge

In 2017, the Government of Kenya launched a new competency-based curriculum (CBC) to replace the previous, 32-year-old curriculum and system. The move was welcomed due to long-standing concerns over the former curriculum’s preoccupation with examinations, heavy workloads and a teacher-centric instructive approach.* The new CBC aimed to be learner-centred, and based on the premise that children learn best when they can construct their own knowledge and skills through being exposed to different challenging scenarios and helped to find real-life solutions. The government rolled the curriculum out in stages, starting with those beginning Grade 1.

The launch of the CBC coincided with the inception of the second phase of the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC2), but many GEC-supported girls in Kenya were not directly affected as they were older than this target age group. Nevertheless, all nine GEC projects implementing in Kenya at the time were impacted by the changes, as they faced the challenges of improving teaching quality and making schools more gender-transformative and inclusive at a tumultuous time of change. Projects found themselves working with a Ministry of Education who were understandably preoccupied with the reforms, and with a cadre of teachers who were about to experience the biggest adjustment of their working lives.

Six years on, 2023 marks an important year for the CBC roll-out for two reasons. Firstly, 1 million children** entered Grade 7 this January in the first year of a new stage called ‘junior secondary’. This stage has never existed before, and requires the delivery of new resources, infrastructure and learning materials to the primary schools who will host junior secondary classes, as well as a novel challenge for teachers teaching this higher level, in a learner-centric way, for the very first time. Secondly, this milestone coincided with a new presidency in Kenya. In an effort to respond to the increasing amount of public criticism of the CBC***, a new Presidential Taskforce and working party on education was formed and tasked with producing recommendations on better implementation. As a result, many GEC projects have been using the last year to assess what they have learned about curriculum roll-out, what teachers and schools have been telling them, and then feeding this learning into Ministry processes. Some, such as Education Development Trust (EDT), even have a seat at the table of the Presidential Taskforce.

Because GEC projects work with the most marginalised girls, in the most marginalised schools in Kenya, their priority has been to understand what the impact could be on these girls, and what they would recommend be done to make sure that the laudable ambition of the CBC is realised for all, and inequalities are not made worse.

The following sections of this blog outline some of the learnings and proposed solutions from five projects: KEEP (led by WUSC), WWW (led by EDT), Jielimishe (led by I Choose Life) and Nawiri (led by Impact(Ed)). These ideas have implications far beyond Kenya for anyone concerned with curriculum and system reform in helping to think about the foundations for equitable and inclusive delivery of a reform agenda.

The challenges of a roll-out

Equitable resourcing

All projects have identified that few schools have the infrastructure needed to support an increase in the number of learners and a switch to a different curriculum, including the learning resources, ICT, assistive devices and assistive technology required by the curriculum which lists digital literacy as a core (and assessed) competency, and explicitly demands that children with disabilities are included in all schools and taught the same curriculum.

Very few of the schools with which GEC projects work have enough classrooms for their school populations even before the CBC was introduced, and a new level of junior secondary requires more space.

IT facilities are often unavailable and schools face issues with electricity and connectivity (and paying these bills in the long term).

Sufficient support for girls with disabilities

Many GEC projects have been working hard to help schools welcome girls with disabilities, but have learned that this is a resource and time-intensive process, with the need for a whole-school transformation in terms of teacher attitudes and skills, adapting reporting mechanisms and other school processes, and covering school-related costs which parents often cannot afford (such as travelling to an educational assessment centre in order to receive a recognised support plan). While the impact of the GEC has been tremendous in this area at the level of the individual girl, the prospect of getting every school in Kenya to this point, without the same level of technical expertise or financial support provided by GEC projects, is ambitious.

Teachers prepared for teaching – and for assessing

Importantly, teachers who work with GEC projects have reported that they feel ill-prepared and under-trained. Those in arid and semi-arid lands, where schools are far from each other and resources even tighter, say that they have not been given enough training. Another group of teachers who may be missing out are those working in alternative provision of basic education centres or within low-cost private schools. GEC projects have been supporting teachers with high workloads for many years now, and highly aware of the amazing work many teachers do and the way they exceed their official responsibilities every day. The nature of the CBC is that it requires more lesson preparation than before, and teachers feel unable to find this time, resulting in poorly taught lessons.

Many of the competencies for each level require familiarity with equipment that GEC schools do not have. For example, a competency at Grade 7 requires learners to demonstrate that they can ‘use and care for different laboratory apparatus’. There is little guidance on how teachers should assess children who will necessarily not have this competency due to not having access (or perhaps not even ever having seen) this equipment at school.

Some of the assessment measures within the curriculum have been seen to be inappropriate in terms of how reliable and ability-based they are. The WWW project worked specifically to address this issue with the Kenya Institute of Special Education to train teachers on assessments to help to bridge this gap. This kind of extra support needs to happen nationwide.

Engagement with parents

Projects have also noticed that a lot of parents are confused about their role under the CBC. Some parents perceive that their children will only be considered as having the competency if they help them with homework at home, or even do the homework for them. Parents who do not have the time, knowledge or skills to do this are extremely worried about letting their daughters down. And parents who do have these capabilities are concerned that too much is being asked of them.

Overall GEC projects note that learners were ‘already left behind’, even before the curriculum. The need for accelerated learning strategies for out-of-school girls is still there, but it is crucial that the new curriculum does not unintentionally leave even more behind and expand the number of those who need ‘catch-up’ help.

Supporting an inclusive roll-out

More teacher training and support
GEC projects often addressed the unmet need for more training by delivering training directly themselves. EDT scheduled teacher training on CBC in partnership with consultants from the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. I Choose Life gave teachers training on ICT for Learning with emphasis on learner-centered approaches. Impact(Ed) focused on improving teachers’ ability to deliver the life skills content of the new curriculum.

• Prioritise wider, deeper and repeated teacher training – with special focus on teachers in pastoralist areas or teaching in low-cost private schools in informal settlements. Consider how methodologies such as self-paced training, communities of practice and phone-based or ICT-enabled training can be part of this.

• Train all teachers on remedial and catch-up teaching and give them the support, time and space they need to be able to deliver this in practice. Update processes and tools to be able to more rapidly identify girls and boys with remedial learning needs.

• Pay attention to the social and emotional wellbeing of teachers through initiatives such as support circles or communities of practice so that those who are struggling with the new CBC get the help they need.

• Introduce the idea of ‘demonstration classrooms’ so that teachers can watch videos of what the implementation of CBC, in a certain subject and at a certain level, actually looks like.

Beyond the teacher
Projects also helped schools become better at working together to implement new changes. EDT trained Board of Management and Parents’ Association members on the new curriculum for planning and support at the school level to teachers. WUSC used community engagements to help parents understand the CBC and what they can do to support teachers and learners. Projects such as I Choose Life also trained school stakeholders on resource mobilisation and fundraising so that they have the foundations to be able to look for resources from other partners if they experience an underfunding situation in the future. As a shorter-term measures, in particularly marginalised schools, GEC projects also directly provided resources to help, such as IT or science lab equipment.

• Equip schools first with the equipment they need – and understand and respond to situations where parents will not be able to finance a gap in school budgets.

• Address current overcrowding issues by building more classrooms and recruiting more teachers – and then expect and plan for populations to rise as marginalised children re-enter the system. Build on the progress already made by the government, including the hiring of 30,000 junior secondary teachers and the development of a criteria for hosting secondary students.

• Provide schools with clarity on which resources are available, which resources they have the right to access (and how) and which resources they need to find themselves. If the onus is on them to find additional resources, plan resource allocation in an equitable way that takes account of different ability of different communities to be able to afford and contribute to these costs. Although the government has declared public junior secondary to be free, hidden costs arise.

• Be clear with parents on what the expectations are, and remove any demands on parents that would mean that only some parents (e.g. wealthier parents, or parents with spare time, or parents with literacy skills) can fulfil them. One of the most aligned ways to do this is through engagement with the recently developed CBC Parent Engagement Policy and supporting its implementation and roll-out.

Modelling inclusive approaches
GEC projects sought to show schools exactly how they could welcome and accommodate girls with disabilities, and to demonstrate the benefits that inclusion would have on the whole school. Leonard Cheshire saw the greatest impact in this area, with all of their partner schools showing dramatically changed attitudes towards inclusion and reporting long-term enthusiasm for bringing more children with disabilities into their school populations. Some of these schools, such as the champion schools identified by ActionAid, have begun reaching out to neighbouring schools to encourage them to do the same.

• Give schools and teachers the help they need to be able to refer children with disabilities for assessment and further support, and adapt their own ways of working and teaching so that children with disabilities are included.

Upskilling those responsible for monitoring and supervision
Quality assurance officers and curriculum support officers needed to know what ‘good roll-out’ of the new CBC actually looked like, and how they could support this. EDT put a lot of emphasis on this cadre of Ministry staff, and held regular review and reflection meetings that enabled officers to better monitor whether core competences were being understood and assessed effectively, and to help teachers use adaptive differentiated teaching methodologies.

• Build the capacity of quality assurance officers – and increase their numbers (and travel budgets).


*See the Commission of Inquiry into the Education System in Kenya (1998) and Kenya Institute of Curricum Development (2016). 
**Challenges with reporting have also been identified, with announcement of 200,000 children not transitioning to junior secondary despite having completed their grade six national exams.
***Kiwe and Wawiri 2022