Historical records not only from the travels of Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann reveal that Kenyans had access to education as far back as 1728 with a Swahili manuscript Utendi wa Tambuka (Book of Heraclius) attesting to the fact. The CMS missionaries interacted with locals in the coastal town of Mombasa and set up one of the earliest mission schools in the country at Rabai in 1846.

With the expansion of the railway from Mombasa to Uganda, the missionaries expanded their work into Kenya's interior. An attempt to set up a school and mission at Yatta in 1894 was resisted by the Kamba tribe. The missionaries then penetrated into western Kenya and set up schools and missions. The first school in western Kenya was established at Kaimosi in 1902. During the colonial era, the number of Kenyans with exposure to education steadily increased and a good number of them were privileged to proceed abroad for further education.

Among those who furthered their education abroad in the colonial era were Jomo Kenyatta, who attended Woodbrooke College and London School of Economics, Charles Njonjo, who attended Grays Inn Law School, Peter Mbiyu Koinange, who attended Columbia University, Mwai Kibaki who attended London School of Economics, R. Mugo Gatheru who attended Roosevelt University, Tom Mboya, who attended Ruskin College, Oxford, Masinde Muliro, who attended University of Cape Town, Julius Gikonyo Kiano who attended Stanford University, Paul Ngei and Barack Obama Sr., who attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Julius Gikonyo Kiano was the first Kenyan to obtain a PhD. He returned to Kenya and was instrumental in establishing a school in Githunguri. The trend steadily rose over the years and by the time of independence in 1963, 840,000 African children were attending elementary school.

The earliest schools in Kenya
School at Rabai near Mombasa - established 1846
Nairobi School established 1902.
Friends School Kaimosi, now Kaimosi Friends Primary School, established in 1903
Maseno School, established in 1906
Government Indian School or The Duke of Gloucester School, now Jamhuri High School, established 1906
Tumutumu Mission School, now Tumutumu Girls' High School established in 1908.
European Girls' School, now Kenya High School established 1908.
Thogoto School, now Thogoto Teachers' Training College established 1910.
Kaimosi Girls High School, established 1920
Allidina Visram High School, Mombasa established 1921
Kaimosi Boys High School, established 1921
Limuru Girls School, established 1922
Waa High School, Kwale County established 1923
Kenton College, established 1924 Kijabi 1935 Kileleshwa
Mang'u High School, established 1925.
Kapsabet High School, established 1925.
Alliance School, now Alliance High School (Kenya) established in 1926.
St. Mary's School Yala, established in 1927.
Highlands High School, now Moi Girls' High School - Eldoret established in 1928.
Kitale Primary, later Kitale Academy, now Kitale School established 1929
Kisii School, established in 1932

Pre and post colonial education Systems
Kenya began a campaign for free primary education after independence in 1963. Since then, the system of education has undergone transformation twice. Before independence elementary education was based on the colonial system of education.

East African Community (7-4-2-3 System)
In 1967, Kenya, with Uganda and Tanzania, formed the East African Community. The three countries adopted a single system of education, the 7-4-2-3, which consisted of 7 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education, 2 years of high school and 3-5 years of university education. Under the system, which was similar to the British system of education, children began their elementary (primary) education at the age of 7 and completed at the age of 13 after sitting for a regional examination known as the East African Certificate of Primary Education (EACPE).

After primary education those who passed very well proceeded to secondary school which ended four years later with the writing of the East African Certificate of Education examination (EACE). The highest level of education that qualified one to attend university was attained after two years of high school at that time distinct from secondary school with students sitting for the East African Advanced Certificate of Education (EAACE).

Kenya 7-4-2-3 System
With the collapse of the East African community in 1977, Kenya continued with the same system of education but changed the examination names from their regional identity to a national identity. The East African Certificate of Primary Education became the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE), the East African Certificate of Education became the Kenya Certificate of Education (KCE) and the East African Advanced Certificate of Education became the Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education (KACE).

8-4-4 Curriculum
Main article: 8-4-4 Curriculum
In 1985 President Daniel arap Moi, introduced the 8-4-4 system of education, which adopted 8 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education and 4 years of university education. With the introduction of the 8-4-4 system CPE became KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) while KCE became the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).

Since 1985, public education in Kenya has been based on an 8-4-4 system, with eight years of primary education followed by four years of secondary school and four years of college or university. To date, there has been steady growth in the advancement of education in the country. the country boasts of a great number of public and private universities as well as middle-level colleges.

British Curriculum
Some private schools, however, offer a system of education similar to the British system of education with ordinary level exams, "O-levels" taken at the end of 4 years of secondary school and advanced levels "A-levels", taken after two years of high school.

Transition rates and Overall Performance
Out of all children in Kenya about 85 percent attend primary school. 75 percent of those who complete primary education proceed to secondary schools and 60 percent of those who complete secondary school proceed to higher institutions of education which include business and vocational institutions, national polytechnics, public and private universities within the country. Over 950,000 Kenyans have furthered their education abroad with a majority of graduates from India, UK, Canada, the United States, Russia and Uganda.