Poverty holds back learning in Kenya

Margaret, a teacher in Nairobi, is the fifth participant in our 10-week #TeacherTuesday campaign. She works in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, helping children find an escape route from poverty through their education. 

Margaret was born in a village in a poor area outside Kenya’s capital city. “I know what it means to be sleeping hungry,”  she said. Now, she wakes daily at 4am to make the two-hour journey to Kibera, most of whose residents lack access to basic services, including electricity and running water. She teaches until 6pm or 7pm, staying late to let children do their homework at school because they don’t have any electricity or space at home.

“There is a line between rich and poor,” Margaret says, explaining the challenges of her daily work. “A child whose parents are working means the child is fed, they are literate, and the parents are able to follow up on their child’s education and learning. Whereas the parents at the school where I teach believe the government should give everything for the child’s education and they don’t need to do anything extra.”

The majority of parents in the Kibera slum, she tells us, “did not go to school or if they did they did not have a very good education. They don’t see the value of education so they don’t follow up. Some children stay at home and are sick. They are used to the hard life”.

The latest EFA Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving quality for all shows that how much a child learns is strongly influenced by the inherited disadvantage that comes with poverty and extreme inequality.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In all 20 sub-Saharan African countries analysed in the Report, children from richer households are more likely not only to complete school, but also to achieve a minimum level of learning once there. In 15 of these countries, no more than one in five poor children reach the last grade and learn the basics.

In Kenya, where Margaret works, children have a better chance of learning, on average, but there is a wide gap between rich and poor, mainly because over half of those from poor households drop out early, while only 16% from rich households do so. As a result, around three-quarters of the poor have not achieved the basics, compared with 37% of the rich.

Teachers need pre-service and ongoing training so that they can improve the learning outcomes for disadvantaged children. Often, as is the case in Kibera, teachers are faced with large classes, and need support in knowing how to identify the children who need the most help with the help of learning assessments and additional teaching and attention.

Margaret’s school has around 85 children in each class. “Class control depends on individual teachers” she said.  “We try to advise new teachers to put the children in groups so that they learn from each other. We identify children who have difficulties in learning. Weak learners are those that tend to be disruptive because they don’t understand. The weakest learners feel ashamed if they are held back, so we give them extra classes in the afternoon.

The 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report warns that if countries fail to attract the best candidates to teaching and train them well, the learning crisis could last for several generations, hitting the disadvantaged hardest. “I am praying the government trains more teachers so we break the large classes into small classes of 50 so we produce the best children from the slum,” Margaret said.

Positive action is needed to break down the barriers facing those born into poverty. Margaret explains that “the leaders, the chief, government officials will look for children in the slum to bring them to school, especially those who have special needs.”

Margaret in her school in the Kibera slum, where children are receiving their lunchtime meal provided by WFP.
Margaret in her school in the Kibera slum, where children are receiving their lunchtime meal provided by WFP.

We have identified those who are extremely poor and give them books,” she continued. Her school also benefits from a WFP feeding programme. “This very much increases the children’s concentration. The children love the food and that’s what keeps them in school. If there’s no food, about 50% don’t come to school. Now we have feeding programmes, the literacy levels have gone up.”

Countries will never eradicate poverty without quality education for all. Prioritizing quality education for all is one of the best investments a country can make.

Margaret remembers being told by her own teachers when she was hungry and reluctant to go to school, “If we don’t have food today, we go to school and we get that food in abundance in the future.” Now that she is a teacher, she passes the same message on to the children she looks after in the slum: “With school you can better yourself,” she tells them. “Everything is possible with an education.”



  1. Its sad to find a girl child failing to go to school because she has no pads, this all come to poverty. at http://www.alittlebitofhope.org we have chosen to do a local pads making project to help girl children go to school. You can visit our web and read how this has been successful

  2. ‘Countries will never eradicate poverty without quality education’ is very true, and we are really impressed by Margaret, she is doing the good job. We appreciate her efforts.

  3. Margaret is doing an excellent job in empowering the young ones. I am one of her pupils.

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