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Working Paper

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Little research on education in developing countries has focused on adolescent issues at the same time, despite the fact that a growing proportion of young people are spending some time in school during the phase of their lives between puberty and marriage, there is little research on schooling as a key dimension of the adolescent experience. This paper examines the school environment in Kenya and the potential ways it can help or hinder adolescents. We focus on gender differences with a view toward illuminating some of the factors that may present particular obstacles or opportunities for girls. The paper begins with a review of what is known about schooling and adolescence focusing on what the literature can tell us about the relationship between adolescent schooling experiences and “successful” transitions to adulthood, including not only the development of cognitive competencies, but the fulfillment of personal educational goals, the avoidance of pregnancy and the development of self-esteem and empowerment of young women. While the demographic literature views education as uniformly positive leading women to delay marriage and childbearing, the education literature views schools as conservative institutions that act to reinforce gender inequality in the society. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, the paper then continues with an analysis of 36 primary schools in three districts of Kenya chosen to reflect the spectrum of school quality in the country. The focus is on primary schools because the majority of adolescents in school attend primary school. In schools that encompass the range in terms of performance and parental status, disorganization coexists with strict punishment, minimal comforts are lacking, learning materials are scarce, learning is by rote, and sex is practiced but not taught. We find that girls do worse than boys in the primary school leaving exam and that better performing schools are not necessarily more gender equitable. Teachers’ attitudes and behavior reveal lower expectations for adolescent girls, traditional assumptions about gender roles and a double standard about sex.