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NAIROBI, Jan 14 2005 (IPS) - A recent statement by the Kenyan government that many students who graduated from primary school last year will not find places in the country’s secondary schools has generated widespread concern.
According to Education, Science and Technology Minister George Saitioti, 657,747 pupils sat for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education last year – up from 587,961 in 2003. This marked an increase of almost 12 percent in the number of exam candidates – the highest increase to be recorded during the past decade.
Saitoti says that more than half of those who left primary school last year cannot be accommodated at Kenya’s 4,000 public secondary schools (the country has 17,600 government-run primary schools).
While some primary school leavers will be able to attend private secondary schools, the fees these institutions charge are beyond the reach of most parents – whose children may be forced to abandon formal schooling.
When it came to power at the end of 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition government introduced free primary education in Kenya.
This policy shift was not without its problems. Many classrooms were filled to overflowing, with teachers obliged to conduct lessons outdoors. Teacher to pupil ratios of one to 80 – sometimes 90 – were recorded, something that placed a severe burden on the country’s instructors.
Nonetheless, about 1.7 million children who had previously been excluded from the education system were able to be enrolled in school.
Kenyan officials are discovering now that in addressing one educational need they have created another.
It is rapidly becoming clear that the policy on basic schooling will have to be matched by similar initiatives concerning secondary education if the nation does not want to be confronted with an even bigger number of children who drop out after primary school.
"It is in our interest to see every Kenyan child completing primary education and getting a chance to get access to secondary education," Francis Ng’ang’a, secretary general of the Kenya National Union of Teachers, told IPS.
"But secondary schools have remained few for a long time. We need a strategy to increase the number of such schools to correspond with the increasing number of pupils," he added.
Ng’ang’a believes that existing secondary schools also have to give thought to taking on more pupils where this is feasible.
In addition, he says parents have an important role to play when it comes to secondary education: "Parents too must join in to help primary schools start their own secondary wings so that when children sit their final exams, they automatically join their secondary school."
This view has been echoed by authorities.
"The role of government is only to provide teachers and instructional material…Communities are to make sure classrooms are available," Anthony Kagwa, the publics relations officer for the Ministry of Education, told IPS.
"Furthermore, the government is encouraging the use of church halls and community centres as room to accommodate extra students," he added.
Even with the best will in the world, however, a great many communities may find it hard to rise to the challenge of supplying school facilities.
Government statistics reveal a grim picture of poverty in Kenya. With over half the population living below the poverty line of a dollar a day, most families have few resources to spare for any activities beyond those that meet their basic needs.
Part of the solution to the secondary school shortage may lie in having more pupils attend polytechnics, which teach practical skills rather than the academic curriculum of traditional high schools.
However, Ng’ang’a notes that polytechnics do not enjoy the same prestige that secondary schools do in Kenya – and that parents are reluctant to send their children there as a result.
"People do not understand the need for skilled labour courses offered here (at polytechnics) like carpentry, masonry and tailoring among others, which can earn (children) income and enhance self-employment," he said, adding "The problem is that people have placed so much emphasis on white-collar jobs."
Shiphrah Gichaga, national coordinator of the Kenyan chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, also warns that many polytechnics have been allowed to fall into disrepair – and may not be up to the task of welcoming vast numbers of new pupils.
"These facilities have been run down and need to be upgraded," she said. "The government also should provide them with new curricula commensurate to the changing education trends. Computer courses must be part of the package."
IPS was not able to ascertain from education officials how many polytechnics have been established in Kenya.
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