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Getting Children in Kenya Ready for Primary School: An Expert Interview with Violet Akinyi and Tabitha Nduku

Tabitha Nduku
Violet Akinyi

How do we get children ready for primary school? In Kenya, the Tayari Early Childhood Development Program (Tayari is a Kiswahili word for “ready”) undertook improvements to the quality of early childhood education (ECE) through interactive teacher training and instructional support; child-centered teaching and learning materials; information and communication technology for monitoring and classroom support; and health and sanitation activities. The four-year program (2015–2019) was implemented through the Ministry of Education in Kenya with technical support from RTI International and was sponsored by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). Tayari saw measurable positive gains in children’s primary school readiness in the four counties where the low-cost intervention worked: Laikipia, Nairobi, Siaya, and Uasin Gishu.

As a Regional Education Program Officer for Tayari, Tabitha Nduku worked closely with the county and sub-county teams and other stakeholders to coordinate trainings, development of materials, and school visits. Tabitha has worked in the ECE sector since 2010 and holds a bachelor’s degree in ECE from Kenyatta University and a master’s degree in children’s literature from Cambridge University.

In Nairobi’s peri-urban slum areas, Tayari supported ECE in low-cost private schools known as Alternative Provision of Basic Education and Training (APBET) schools. Applying her 12 years of experience in education, Violet Akinyi, a City Manager, coordinated program implementation in Nairobi’s APBET schools, including managing 22 ECE teacher coaches. Violet began her training as a primary school teacher before getting her bachelor’s degree in ECE from Kenyatta University, where she was pursuing her master’s degree when we spoke with her.

We interviewed Violet and Tabitha to hear more about their roles in designing, implementing, and adapting program activities, from materials development to classroom support.

What was the problem you were trying to address through the Tayari model?

We started by conducting research visits to identify gaps in ECE service delivery. Some of the major issues we noticed were that teachers were teaching entirely different lessons from one preprimary school to the next; that most teachers weren’t using the Ministry of Education syllabus; and that teachers had few materials, or they were using materials that weren’t approved. Often, teachers were treating ECE classes as if they were grade 1, which meant that the content and materials were beyond the learners. All told, that meant we wanted to harmonize the content and instruction across counties to be age appropriate.

Another gap was that that preprimary schools were often missing a health component completely. One of Tayari’s treatments supported the county health systems’ use of ECE centers for referrals, health record-keeping, and locally managed hand-washing systems.

Tell us about the materials development, teacher training and support, and stakeholder engagement you coordinated for Tayari. What informed their preparation, and how did they fit into the bigger picture of a cost-effective, scalable ECE model?

The first thing we did was to establish a “scope and sequence” to guide the order and the choice of concepts to be introduced in any new materials. We spent a lot of time with the Kenya Ministry of Education representatives and other stakeholders in 2015 creating, testing, reviewing, and approving materials for use in the classroom. We then began training education officers who were working as Sub-County Early Childhood Development Coordinators (SCECDCs), who in turn trained the preprimary teachers.

This was the first time many of the education officers had encountered ECE-appropriate methodologies. Additionally, most preprimary teachers weren’t used to following a guide when teaching. Even veteran preprimary teachers didn’t know what they were supposed to be teaching and when. The first step in our training, therefore, became convincing the teachers to test a new approach. We carried copies of the Kenyan government’s ECE syllabus with us, which we used to show the teachers that the materials did align with the syllabus. Once they agreed to try, teachers reported that learners were really enjoying the new materials and approaches.

After training, Tayari staff and the SCECDCs started visiting teachers in their classrooms to help them focus their instruction on age-appropriate content. In one classroom we visited, for example, learners could count up to 100 (in order) but couldn’t identify an individual number over five. We explained to the teacher that it was better to focus on mastering all aspects of a few numbers at first.

Getting SCECDCs to the classrooms for this kind of coaching was critical. While they were supposed to support each teacher in their assigned cluster twice a month, some rural sub-county offices were understaffed and the SCECDCs were stretched too thin, so we supported the government to bring on more coordinators so that each one was assigned to no more than 30 teachers.

Our Tangerine:Tutor™ interactive observation tool, for use on digital tablets, also aligned with the materials. It helped the officers make notes about the classroom environment while also observing instruction. After observation data were submitted (electronically, through the Tangerine:Tutor platform) at the end of each month, we would share a link to an updated online data visualization tool, the Tangerine Dashboard. County and sub-county officials could use the Dashboard displays to monitor support to ECE teachers. SCECDCs who were identified as struggling were targeted with more support from Tayari staff. We also paired strong and weak coordinators, especially during training, so that they could mentor and support one another.

What were your favorite materials or activities?

[Tabitha] Looking back, my favorite materials of all those we developed were the big books! They took me back to my own childhood, sitting in a circle around the teacher and enjoying listening to stories without feeling pressure to write or read but to just let the story take you away.

[Violet] I liked it that the children could learn so much from just one page. They could practice counting, make predictions, interpret pictures, and identify letters.

What were the major findings from the Tayari impact study? Was this what you expected?

First, we need to explain that Tayari offered three treatment groups: Treatment 1, training and support; Treatment 2, training and support plus pupil books and teachers’ guides; and Treatment 3, training and support, books and teachers’ guides, and the health and sanitation intervention.

One of the main findings from learner assessments and the resulting data analyses was that both teacher training and support without professionally made materials (Treatment 1), and the same intervention with professionally made materials (Treatment 2), resulted in significant improvements.

The success of Treatment 1 wasn’t surprising because we saw that it gave teachers an opportunity to be creative in developing their own materials, and that it involved a lot of play, which is the ideal of how children at that age should learn. The performance of Treatment 2 was exciting because it told us that the materials we had made were working and that coordinating them with the curriculum was beneficial. The finding that APBET schools did even better than public schools also wasn’t surprising, as these teachers traditionally give extra content and activities over a longer day, so having more materials gave them even more to work with.

Finally, we didn’t see as much improvement in Treatment 3, but part of the reason for that is our health teams at the sub county level really weren’t used to implementing programs in schools, and it took them a long time just to adjust to this. Still, the health component is something we should continue to push, which may mean engaging more with the health sector and Ministry of Health.   

In your own experience, did you see different responses in the APBET schools?

The teachers from APBET schools really valued the training opportunities, and the certificate they could earn after 2 years, because most of them had never received any training and some had been school dropouts brought in to address an urgent shortage of preprimary instructors.

Because these were local private schools, however, the APBET parents wanted to see academic outcomes. These schools were even giving exams in preprimary! So to see us bring in toys and games for learning through play was very concerning for parents. As a compromise, APBET schools would accept and incorporate the Tayari curriculum and materials, but would also push the more academic, high-level activities demanded by paying parents.

Tell us about your next steps. How do you think the Tayari model and the findings from the impact study can be applied in other contexts?

The Tayari approach certainly could be adopted in other countries, although they would need to align the program to their own curriculum and address their specific gaps.

For Kenya, it would be ideal to review and reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far and what new gaps we are now facing. Parents play a huge role in ECE, and learners are coming to schools straight from home. That link between home and school is very important, and more attention needs to be paid to parents and to what is being done at home to prepare learners for preprimary. We are now also ready to expand from early literacy and numeracy to include the teaching of more social-emotional skills.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Tabitha Nduku and Violet Akinyi to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.