Nairobi — If you are a middle-class child in Kenya, you are more likely to complete your education and have better basic numeracy and literacy skills than a rich child in Uganda or Tanzania.
However, if you are a poor student in Kenya, you will be worse educated than a similar child in Uganda or Tanzania. These are the stark findings of a survey by East African education think tank Uwezo conducted in June, which evaluates the state of literacy and numeracy in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
For example, in Kenya, 31 per cent of children from poor households in Standard 3 passed the numeracy test, as compared with 28 per cent of children from the wealthiest of households in Uganda who passed this test.
At least 19 per cent of Kenyan children from the poorest households passed the English test, as compared with 16 per cent of children from the wealthiest households in Tanzania who passed this test.
Starker still than the disparities between countries and between rich and poor is the revelation that educational quality is alarmingly low. Poor quality education is steadily eroding East Africa's skills base, severely undermining the hopes of industrialisation in the next few decades.
Despite a steady increase in primary school enrolment across the region, the majority of children do not gain even Standard 2 level skills until they are almost finished with primary school. Many never learn these skills at all.
"Even though Kenya is ahead, as a whole the region is doing quite badly. It's like a house with a hopelessly weak foundation," said Dr Sara Ruto of Uwezo, adding that urgent measures need to be taken to improve the basics of numeracy and literacy.
The study did not cover Burundi and Rwanda, the new members of the East African Community, whose education systems are not yet as similar as those in the other three EAC nations.
The study on the state of primary schools found that Kenya's schools impart the most knowledge. And in the three tests -- Kiswahili, English and numeracy -- Kenya's pupils came out on top, followed by pupils in Uganda.
While focusing on education, the study offers fascinating insights into the economic and social disparities in the three countries.
The underlying message of the report is that children from well-off families reap many rewards, and those from poor families pay a heavy penalty.
The education outlook in East Africa therefore depicts the vulnerability of the poor in the region and the growing stability of its emerging middle class, which has driven up consumption and precipitated a construction boom of shopping malls, coffee shops and residential apartment blocks in the major cities.
Most opinion polls show that among East Africans, Tanzanians are the most cautious about regional economic integration, particularly the proposed East African Political Federation.
The sceptics in Tanzania say deeper regional integration leads to other East Africans "stealing" their jobs, and possibly taking away their land.
To the extent that education and the skills one acquires give one a better chance of getting ahead in a competitive economy, the Uwezo results suggests that Tanzanians' intuition about their likely disadvantage is largely accurate.
The results also suggest that Ugandans' wariness about Kenyans is also not unfounded, and that political federation will become more widely accepted with improved levels of education in the region.
Experts assert that long-term economic growth in the region is inexorably linked to the rise of the middle class consumer, although the poor households -- which constitute more than half of the EAC population -- will continue to drag down the well off in society as dependency rises.
The African Development Bank estimates that, in East Africa, there are at least 29.3 million people considered as belonging to the middle class, representing an average of 22.6 per cent of the population -- 44.9 per cent of Kenya's population, 18.7 per cent of Uganda's, 12.1 per cent of Tanzania's, 7.7 per cent of Rwanda's, and 5.3 per cent of Burundi's.
However, the gap between the poor and the rich, measured along parameters such as income, gender, access to health and education, continues to widen, presenting a dilemma for policymakers.
Perhaps worse than the inequality of access to education is the deteriorating quality of that education across the board. The Uwezo study found the majority of primary school leavers across the region can barely handle numeracy and literacy tests conducted in Class Two.
There is no standardised test that measures such things as reading, writing and basic critical thinking ability in the lower and middle classes in the region, meaning the governments cannot independently judge the quality of education generated by their investment, which runs into billions of dollars annually.
Education takes up more than five per cent of the entire budgets in the five countries. For instance, Kenya's budget for education stood at $1.72 billion -- 13 per cent of the total budget -- up from last year's allocation of $1.63 billion.
This declining quality of learning in East Africa's primary schools is steadily eroding the region's human capital base and undermining hopes of industrialisation in the next two decades.
The survey, which compares reading and numeracy levels among children in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, revealed that children from the poorest households in Kenya were much less likely to attain basic skills than children from wealthier Kenyan households.
However, the chances of success were still higher for a child from a very poor Kenyan household than for a child from a very wealthy Ugandan or Tanzanian family. Tanzania exhibits, by far, the worst performance based on the Uwezo tests than any other EAC country.
Pupils attending private schools across the region -- normally a preserve of the rich -- performed better on the Uwezo tests than those attending public schools.
In Kenya, 60 per cent of children in Standard 3 private schools passed the English and numeracy tests, twice as good as the performance in public schools, a trend that cuts across the other countries.
Dropout rates were higher for children from poor and very poor households. Among those who dropped out of school, 61 per cent were from poor or very poor households in Kenya, compared with 50 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively, in Uganda and Tanzania.
Among the middle class, only 18 per cent of children in Kenya dropped out of school. In Tanzania, more wealthy children (24 per cent) dropped out of school compared with those from poor backgrounds (23 per cent). Uganda's dropout rates are almost equally distributed across poor and wealthy households.
Enrolment rates were lowest in Kenya (around 84 per cent) and highest in Uganda (around 90 per cent).
In Kenya, 64 per cent of children aged 6-16 who never enrolled in schools were from the poorest households, while in Uganda and Tanzania this figure stood at 45 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively. This signals that the poor continue to be denied access to education.
The study concludes that the children are completing primary school with limited numeracy and literacy levels.
While the study was done in primary schools, educationists said the half-baked school leavers are filtering into other levels of learning -- like secondary schools and universities -- and impacting on the quality of graduates entering the EAC job market. This could hurt the bloc's ability to produce skills needed to grow its economies.
In the university sector, the mushrooming of institutions and their uncontrolled expansion in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi is said to be diluting content. Meanwhile, relatively low government funding and low staffing levels in public universities mean that the quality of learning is deteriorating there, too.
All this is happening at a time when universities are expected to ride on the wave of increased demand for professional services in the 127-million-people EAC Common Market. The ongoing reconstruction of East Africa's infrastructure and the rising number of foreign investors eyeing the mergers and acquisitions market has created fresh opportunities in project finance, venture capitalism, business formation and due diligence investigation that require professional support.
The study assessed tens of thousands of children in 135 districts across East Africa in a home environment. English, Kiswahili and numeracy tests were designed in accordance with national curricula, to determine whether the pupils had mastered the Standard 2 level of their national education curriculum.
In each of the countries, if the education system was working well, all children (100 per cent) who are in Standard 3 should have acquired the Standard 2 level competencies.
But the results paint a dismal picture of the education systems. While state-sponsored schools across the region continue to record declining results, given inadequate facilities and teacher shortages, children in private schools also performed dismally in the Uwezo tests.
In Kenya, only 28 per cent of pupils in Standard 3 who completed the English test were able to read a Standard 2 level story with ease. In Uganda and Tanzania, pass rates were worse -- 4 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively. But in Tanzania, the results were particularly discouraging; by Standard 7, only about half could read a story in English set at a Standard 2 difficulty level, compared with 94 per cent in Kenya.
The pattern for numeracy was similar -- Kenya in the lead, followed by Uganda and then Tanzania. However, 12 per cent of Kenyan Standard 7s could not do a sum set at Standard 2 level. In Uganda, the figure was 15 per cent and in Tanzania, an alarming 32 per cent.
Kiswahili was not tested in Uganda, but the results in Tanzania and Kenya are surprising -- Tanzanian children performed worse. The popular belief is that, in Kiswahili, children in Tanzania ought to have an advantage over children in Kenya.
Dr Ruto says these wide gaps could be attributed to the schooling levels of parents. "We found that Kenyan parents are more likely to be higher educated than their Ugandan or Tanzanian counterparts, regardless of income. It could be that these parents are more involved in their children's education."
In the East African Uwezo ranking, Kenyan districts occupied the first 24 positions. The first non-Kenyan district was from Tanzania in the 25th position, while the first Ugandan district was in 44th place. No Kenyan districts were among those ranked in the bottom 10.
Poor children in Kenya, however, have a much lower access to education than other poor children in the region. The gap in achievement between poorer and richer children is much more pronounced in Kenya than in Tanzania and Uganda.
"In Kenya, the biggest problem is inequality in achievement across socio-economic classes. If the gap continues to widen, the country risks an implosion. Education is a basic right enshrined in the Constitution, and its quality should not have such a huge disparity across incomes," said Dr Ruto.
Meanwhile, officials from the Uganda National Examinations Board have criticised the findings, saying the competencies examined were above P2 level.
Aggrey Kibinge, the spokesperson at Uganda's Ministry of Education, also raised issue with the sample size, saying: "The survey captured only 810 out of a total of 16,000 primary schools in Uganda, and only 31,000 pupils out of about 7 million children in primary school. We doubt that the sample was representative."