By Daisy Okoti
Published March 19, 2014
The year 2003 began with a lot of promise for parents with primary school going children in Kenya: President Mwai Kibaki, who had come to power on December 30, 2002,‘re-introduced’ Free Primary Education (FPE) which had existed in the country with varied degrees of success since 1971 before the World Bank and International Monetary Fund prevailed upon the country to introduce cost-sharing in education through Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the 1980s. Kibaki scrapped these cost-sharing fees from January 6, 2003 and directed that no additional levy would be charged by any school without prior approval of the Government.
The scrapping of fees not only led to an additional1.5 million pupils enrolling in schools between January 2003 and June 2004 but also saw the Government receive massive attention and praise globally.
With the high enrollment rate, Kenya may have thought itself well on the path to attaining 100% literacy levels ahead of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal of “ensuring universal primary education for all by 2015”. Unfortunately, that dream was not to be as more and more faults have continued to emerge in the FPE plan.
KENPRO Online Papers Portal, in a paper titled ‘Challenges Facing the Implementation of Free Primary Education in Kenya’, lists congested classrooms, limited physical facilities, a shortage of qualified teachers and late disbursement of funds from the Government to the schools as some of the challenges bedeviling FPE.
Teacher shortages has led to a high teacher: pupil ratio; in some schools that ratio is 1:70, 1:80 or even 1:100; this exceeds the recommended maximum rate of one teacher to 40 learners, i.e. 1:40. This makes it difficult for teachers to pay attention to all learners, give adequate assignments to the pupils or even to inculcate discipline among their wards.
That there is not enough interaction between a teacher and the learner is impacting negatively on the quality of education in public primary schools.
A survey by the National Assessment Centre (NAC), a body set up by the Government to monitor learning achievement, paints a rather bleak picture of FPE.
Working in collaboration with a research Non-Governmental Organisation called Uwezo Kenya in 2009, NAC conducted the first Annual Learning Assessment (ALA), an assessment of the basic literacy and numeracy skills of children aged 6–16 years. ALA surveyed about 70,000 children using a standard set at a Class Two level, which is the benchmark at which pupils are expected to have achieved basic competency in reading English and Kiswahili and completing simple arithmetic problems.
It was found out that 10% of Class Eight pupils could not solve Class Two level subtraction problems while 4% could neither read a Class Two level paragraph in the official languages, English and Kiswahili.
Literacy levels, the study concluded, “are lower in public schools than in private schools.”
So, just how literate are pupils emerging from the FPE plan?
Though the FPE programme guarantees free writing materials and text books to every pupil, the ratio of textbooks to pupils is 1:5, making it mandatory for book-sharing and thus affecting access to and completion of academic assignments, especially ‘homework’ that pupils are expected to complete from their homes.
With the introduction of FPE, the Government may have failed to put into account the fact that enrollment levels in public schools would increase tremendously because children who may have dropped out of school due to lack of school fees would return. There is hardly any space for free movement during lessons in some classrooms. Some schools have mats for children to sit on as they lack an adequate number of desks; using mats affects the writing skills and general physical development of learners.
Ten years down the line, the media in the country still report about schools in which pupils learn under tree-shades because of shortage of classrooms. Some have only one functional pit latrine or none at all.
Micheal Fredenisken, writing in CES Canada, says that funding for capital projects in schools such as infrastructure and water projects are unavailable from the Government and this money has to be raised through local fundraisers and the work of NGOs.
Also plaguing the public primary education sector is the constant labour unrest as teachers push for better remuneration. Some of the complaints put across by teachers and which the Government has reportedly ignored dates back to 1997.
‘The Kenyan Universal Primary Education Mirage’, an article by Ogova Ondego published in ArtMatters.Info in 2008, quotes Dr Edward Sambili, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Planning and National Development, as saying: “The introduction of free primary school education in 2003 has seen the net enrolment rate in primary school increase from 73.7% in 2000 to 84.2% in 2006″ and that “Gross enrolment rate stands at 105%”. Now, the PS adds, the Government is addressing the issues of the quality of the facilities and services.
However, instead of addressing the glaring shortcomings identified in FPE that have led to poor performance in public primary schools, the government covers them by, among other things, introducing a quota system favouring candidates from public schools against their private school counterparts in their selection to supposedly well equipped ‘National’ secondary schools upon completion of their primary education.
In that quota system, children from private primary schools who performed well enough to join prestigious ‘national’ and ‘provincial’ secondary schools are discriminated against in favour of those from public primary schools who did not perform as well as they.
The Government contends that children from public primary schools have to be ‘protected’ because they are disadvantaged. But, pray, how can they be ‘disadvantaged’ when tax-payers save them from levies and fees their private school counterparts are paying? How can they be disadvantaged when they do not have to buy desks, books and pay salaries for school staff that those who attend private schools have to deal with? Why can’t the government that scrapped fees and other levies in 2003 ensure that those children are not ‘disadvantaged’ by providing enough number of teachers, learning facilities and all essential infrastructure for learners in public schools? Why would any serious Government punish children whose parents have toiled to ensure they have quality education now provided through less populated but fee-charging private schools?
Ondego’s article quotes James Tooley, an education expert at New Castle University in the UK who did a survey in Nairobi’s Kibera slums in 2003 as telling BBC Focus on Africa magazine that “The number of private schools has increased from 76 to 116 now. In private schools, pupil enrolment has risen to around 28,000 from 12,600, a rise of more than 100 per cent. Government school enrolment has risen by only 23 per cent, suggesting that parents are aware private schools will better serve them.”
According to Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics, the number of private school-going children has nearly tripled since the introduction of FPE, while the performance in public primary schools has dropped.
Unless more teachers are employed to match the rising numbers of learners in public primary schools, parents with the slightest of means will continue to patronise private schools because, to them, that is where ‘real-learning’ in the era of FPE happens. And this beats the reason for which FPE was set up in the country.
Before the ‘introduction’ of FPE, learning in public primary schools was the preferred option because of the high status and quality of education that learners got from being associated with public—read, Government—schools. But the high teacher to pupil ratios occasioned by FPE in 2003 has led parents to transfer their children to private schools whose teacher: pupil ratio is low and favourable to learning. Indeed, Ondego’s article contends that to parents, ‘free’ in FPE translates to ‘cheap’ and ‘low quality’.
Unfortunately, not all institutions that operate as private schools and that that are opened almost on a daily basis in mainly urban Kenya are genuine. Some unscrupulous people are taking advantage of the desperation of parents to set up not-so-up-to-standard schools. Since most parents have no way of knowing whether these schools have what it takes to equip their children, they end up being duped and this further contributes to the mounting problems of primary education in Kenya.
The dropout rate in public primary schools is also very alarming. A clear indication of this is the difference between the number of pupils who joined primary school in Class One in 2003 and those who completed the eight-year cycle in 2010; from the more than 1.5 million who enrolled, only about 500,000 sat Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination. So, are there other factors that affect school attendance apart from school fees?
The Global Education Fund reports a very high dropout rate, especially among girls, in Kenya. The organisation argues that children are often forced to leave school due to the need to provide family income. Girls are often forced into early marriage, early motherhood or to stay at home and help take care of younger siblings as their parents go out to earn a living.
Bernard Onyango, a doctoral fellow in Sociology at Brown University, concurs with the Global Education Fund that residence and family income along with gender are strong the determinants of whether a Kenyan child is in or out of school and not necessarily the ability to pay school fees.
There is no denying the fact that despite the FPE programme in Kenya, not all school-going-aged children are in school. Unless the Government re-evaluates the FPE programme, putting into consideration the various factors that affect education such as the availability of schools and teachers, security, the ability of the available infrastructure to support learners, and cultural and gender prejudices in the country, FPE is unlikely to accrue dividends for pupils, parents and other stakeholders.
Mega-corruption is perhaps one of the most serious challenges to FPE as senior Ministry of Education officials collude with school heads in stealing moneys set aside for education. They use public money “in fake training workshops, hiring of training halls, laptops and other accessories, and trainers’ fees. Dubious dealings were listed on forged receipts and handed to accounting officers at the Ministry of Education showing: “inflated payments of goods and services, double allocation and disbursement of funds to some schools and implementation of new programs like school nutrition and mobile schools in the arid and semi-arid lands,” kenyastockholm.com reports, quoting Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.
Unless urgent steps are taken to reform learning in public primary schools, the literacy levels in the country will continue to decline even as taxpayers continue to be burdened by FPE.