Off to School – Kenya Style

Pre-Unit Class

The 2011 Tenderfeet Pre-Unit Class

When does the school year begin in Tenderfeet? What’s the difference between Pre-Unit and middle class?  Does Tenderfeet have a summer vacation?

These are the kinds of questions that come up frequently at presentations and conversations with sponsors.

For those unfamiliar with the educational system in Kenya, it can be difficult to understand the similarities and differences between the Kenyan system and systems in non-African countries.

Let’s take a closer look and become experts on some of these topics.

School Calendar

In Kenya, the school year begins in January. There are three terms, each lasting three months. The first term goes from January to March, the second from May to July, and the final term starts in September and ends in late November or early December.

In between the terms are three school breaks in April, August, and December. Each break lasts three or four weeks. The final break, in December, is the most significant and the time when most urban families visit relatives (usually grandparents) in rural areas.

The final term is especially important because that is when major exams take place, and students prepare to go on to the next level.

Pre-Primary Levels

There are four major categories of grade levels in the Kenyan system: Pre-Primary, Primary, Secondary, and College/University.

Pre-Primary students start as young as 3 years old.  There are three levels of Pre-Primary: Introductory (also called Baby Class), Middle, and Top (also called Pre-Unit).  Introductory class students are 3 and 4 year olds, Middle class students are 4 and 5, and Top class students are 5 and 6.

Sometimes students start school older because of financial reasons, so it is not unusual to find a 7 or 8 year old in Top class.

Pre-Unit is equivalent to Kindergarten in many countries like the U.S.  When a student completes Pre-Unit and is ready to enter Primary School, it is a major accomplishment and Tenderfeet marks the occasion every year with a big ceremony in late November or early December.

Tenderfeet Graduates 2010

At the annual Graduation ceremony, Pre-Unit Students of 2010 "Graduate" to Primary. In 2011, they will be in Class One, also called Standard One

The importance of Pre-Primary education in Kenya cannot be overstated.  Even though it is not considered mandatory, our experience is that it can make all the difference to a young child from the slums.  In Pre-Primary, students learn socialization, basic English and Swahili, counting and simple mathematics, and develop important habits for learning.

For those who don’t have the three years of background in Pre-Primary, school is almost always overwhelming.

Such a child is often lost because he or she may only speak the tribal language of the family, and classes in Kenya are conducted in Swahili and English.  We’ve seen many children lacking the Pre-Primary foundation struggle and eventually fail out of Primary because the gaps are often too large to fill.

Primary and Secondary Levels

Once in Primary school, students must complete grades 1-8.  In Kenya, these are called “Class 1”, “Class 2”, etc.  It is also common to refer to these as “Standard 1”, “Standard 2”, etc.  There is no concept of a middle or junior high school.

Currently, Tenderfeet is offering six grade levels: the three years of Pre-Primary, as well as Classes 1, 2, and 3.

Kevin Ochoki as he entered Form 1

Kevin Ochoki was the first Tenderfeet student to be sponsored in High School. Here he is as he entered Form 1

A student who is in Class 8 is referred to as a “Candidate”.  The entire school year is focused on preparing for the KCPE, a major exam whose score will determine if the student can enter High School.

Although Primary School has been supposedly free since 2003, in fact, every student is required to pay entrance fees, book fees, purchase uniforms, and so on.  It costs between $100-$200 U.S. to enter most “free” Primary schools in Kenya.  Every year, a fundraiser is held to assist the students who leave Tenderfeet as they make the transition.

Secondary Schools are most certainly not free, and the cost goes up to about $500 to enter.  Imagine a family in the slums with a few children, living on $30-$60 per month trying to pay such an amount!

There are four years of High School, referred to as Form 1, Form2, Form3, and Form 4.  At the end of Form 4, students take another major exam called the KCSE, which has an impact on what kind of College or University they can enter.

Our dream is for all of the Tenderfeet students to eventually be able to go to High School and perhaps even beyond.  We’re making some progress, as you can see from this photo album.  Thank you for your wonderful support in making this dream become a reality.

One Response to “Off to School – Kenya Style”

  1. John Bayer says:

    I used to teach in the elementary grades in the U.S. – grades 3,4,5, and 6
    Your school system sounds wonderful, and I hope more and more students will get through and be able to go on to college and university.

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