Since I am here working for an NGO focused on education, I think it's appropriate and about time I share what I have learned about the Kenyan education system and culture as it relates to education.
The education system is modeled after the UK, consisting 8 years of primary, 4 years secondary and 4 years of university (also with 'Pre-Unit' years, like our pre-school and kindergarten). Primary and secondary school in Kenya are structured into 3 terms per year - starting in January, it cycles with 3 months of classes and one month off ('holiday' months are April, August and December). University follows a similar structure as the predominant semester system in the U.S. - two semesters of classes per year with a long break in between, the longer break during the summer. To graduate from primary to secondary, every student must take an exam to receive their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education ("KCPE", "KCPE Exam"). Similarly, to graduate from secondary to university level, every student must take an exam to receive their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education ("KCSE", "KCSE Exam"). The subjects tested on both the KCPE and KCSE Exams are Math, Sciences (chemistry, biology and physics), English, Kiswahili, and Social Studies (Christian Religious Studies is also tested but I am not sure if this contributes to the total score – 85% or so of the population is very outspokenly Christian, if not in action). The tests are comprehensive in all subjects – covering all the material one is supposed to learn during all years of Primary and Secondary education. Exam scores are out of 500 marks, with the average student scoring 250, and one's score is virtually the only criterion considered when applying to a school of the next level of education; grade point average ("GPA") and extracurricular activities are not considered. This structure, while on the surface may seem objective, proves to be a hindrance to success for most poor Kenyans - both in their ambitions to further their education and in their preparedness for work/earning a living thereafter.
In the U.S., we are familiar with exams that hold much weight in measuring past performance and determining future options. Near the end of primary school, many students must take achievement tests (like CATs) or proprietary entrance exams that secondary schools rely on to help determine the academic preparedness of applicants from the primary level. All of us who pursued university level education took the SAT or the ACT. These scores, though very important, are not the sole criterion of admission. Applicants' essays, recommendations, athletics, background, service and other involvement are considerable factors. This adds the element of subjectivity; one who has a diverse history or lack of privilege has the potential to stand out in the competitive application process based on personal achievement (like perseverance), and might be considered over another who simply scored well on the entrance exam. In Kenya, that is not the case. If you have a bad day and for some reason do not score well, you are SOL. You only have the option of reenrolling in Standard 8 (eighth grade) or Form 4 (senior year) and trying to pass the test again the following year. This is obviously something a poor Kenya cannot afford easily – so for most, a bad score is the end of the line.
Some information/statistics to enlighten you: only 2 thirds of eligible students who take the KCPE score well enough to get letters of acceptances from a secondary school, and roughly 10-15% score well enough on the KCSE to progress onto university. After his election of 2002, President Kibaki promised free primary education for everyone, and after his reelection in 2007 he promised free secondary education. In reality, the government covers roughly 20-25% of the costs of public schools. This is not enough for the schools to operate, so the schools pass the additional fees on to the students; many of whom obviously cannot afford this, so they are sent home and never have a chance to complete the required curriculum and take the national exam. All students, despite the quality of school they attend, are expected to compete on the same national exams (KCPE and KCSE). A top score earns you acceptance to a private boarding school after primary, or acceptance to a public university with a government scholarship after secondary (last year, it was an A- for guys, and B+ for girls for a scholarship). Top tier private boarding schools cost roughly $1,000/year and up for secondary, while public secondary schools cost roughly $300-$500/year. Government scholarships to university, again, only cover part of the tuition – let alone room and board and all the other expenses that are necessary – leaving roughly $1,000 /year passed on to the student. With 50% of the population of Kenya living below the poverty line making less than $2/day, these fees are obviously cost prohibitive.
There are other disparities and requirements that make the game unfair. The first is that all schools are not made equal; the difference in facilities, teachers, and resources is astounding. The wealthy schools have all the things we take for granted in the U.S., like functional buildings, electricity, running water, sanitary conditions, well paid teachers, good teacher/student and textbook/student ratios, libraries and laboratories. Students in these schools have access to necessary personal items such as books, notebooks, writing instruments, desks, sanitary towels for girls, shoes, food/drink, etc. For the poorer schools, this is commonly not the case. Classes are overcrowded with an average of one teacher for every 60+ or students, if you can call them classes at all - some are simply corrugated iron dwellings with no utilities. Teachers are paid between $20 and $50 per month. These schools often have one outdated, worn textbook for every 3-5 students. Despite this, education is one of the most culturally valued tools to improving your standing in life, so students walk miles to school without shoes, some work while studying; all do this in good faith to maybe, one day, have the slightest chance to reach for that brass ring. To try and make up some of the difference in opportunity and resources, poor Kenyans work harder than anyone I have seen in the states. Starting in Standard 6 (6th grade), many schools are in session from 8am – after 5pm, on Saturdays, and often during of the holiday months. In other words, all the time, except maybe December. The curriculum is rigorous, even by U.S. standards, and does not wait for those who can't keep up. The courage, determination and ambition I have seen in the students I encounter and work for through GEF is inspiring, though the reality makes my stomach turn. I remember grade school and high school being difficult, and I surely worked hard - but I never would have imagines the obstacles these students face without seeing them and hearing their stories first-hand. Other requirements include asking for fees to take exams (the government always wants to get paid), requirements by schools for students to have certain items (like buying uniforms and other arguably unnecessary items), and levying additional fees for school development initiatives or unforeseen expenditures by the schools; all of which adding to the financial burdens for poor students, often pushing it just beyond their reach though they have the ability and determination to succeed.
Much like the implications of 'No Child Left Behind' legislation, focusing academic performance measurement simply on an exam scores has several negative consequences for aspiring youth. Schools do not bother teaching practical life skills (like teamwork and leadership) and leave no time for extracurricular activities – maybe other than church and occasionally football (soccer) matches. In poor schools, there is no college or career counselor that prepares you for the 'next step' after each level of education. Graduating students are left to wait and pray for their scores, with no options if they do not turn out as hoped. If they can't continue their education, they face an economy with over 70% unemployment for people under 30 years old. If one does not have a parent or other connection to help them, they will be on their own, and the standard path for women is to return home to do house chores or get married, while men 'hustle' – i.e. doing anything they can do to earn a couple shillings to get by. Many turn to drugs or abusive relationships of dependence. Many young men are enticed into a life of violence and crime. Talent is wasted. The population is heavily weighted towards the youth, as many parents die of the high HIV rate, traffic accidents, etc. with such a high population of educated, idle, disenchanted and angry youth with no opportunity, it is tense to say the least – more accurately, if feels like a powder keg of ethnic and class strife, likely to blow up at the next opportunity (the first wave was apparent in the 2007 elections, and why everyone is holding their breath before the 2012 elections – small tangent here, but it is all related).