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Evolving Job Market Guides Kenya's Education Overhaul

FILE - Students take an exam at the Mathare North Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 31, 2017.

Kenya is embarking on a pilot program to overhaul its education system. The aim is to emphasize skills over knowledge and to include more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) courses and vocational training in an effort to better prepare youth for the evolving job market.

If implemented, this would be the second major reform to Kenya's national school curriculum since independence.

The last such change, in 1985, moved the country to the so-called 8-4-4 system - eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school and four years of university.

Now, Kenya's education ministry is rolling out a new model dubbed 2-6-6-3, which reshuffles the number of years students spend at the primary, secondary and university levels. The goal is to get students ready for existing and emerging jobs.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of unemployment in East Africa, according to the 2016 U.N. Human Development Index.

"The 8-4-4 system needed to be changed because it was no longer addressing the needs today," said Sarah Ruto, chairperson of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, a government agency. "If you look at employers, they are always saying the graduates they are getting do not have the skills and competencies to fit in the job market and this brings us back to the education system. How are we teaching?"

Officials say the new system supports the government development plan, called Vision 2030, to transform Kenya into an industrialized, middle-income economy by the end of the next decade.

Children would enter preschool at age four and stay two years. Students would then move to six years of primary school, where the focus would be on logical thinking, social skills and digital literacy.

Next would be six years of secondary school, to include rigorous career guidance. The last three years would be centered around arts, sports, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and STEM fields. Students would focus on a specific area based on their abilities.

Digital literacy would be a main facet throughout, and schools would shift away from exam-based evaluation. Secondary school students would sit for a final exam to determine whether they will move on to an additional three years of either university or additional vocational training.

"There are so many changes happening and one of the biggest changes is technology, how technology is shaping and impacting," Ruto said. "If you do not sit back and reflect and reform, you will find that what you are doing in the school is very different from what is happening outside. This will mean that when your children start graduating from the school system, they are being trained for something that is not in society."

However, experts warn that a new curriculum is not a magic bullet. They say Kenya must also address other issues, for example frequent teacher strikes and a lack of basic necessities - such as desks - in schools.

The new model is being tested in schools selected by the government. If all goes well, educators will submit a formal plan for a nationwide overhaul to parliament for debate and approval.