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KENYA: Failing Grade For Free Primary Education?

Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - When in 2003 Kenya followed its neighbours Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi in introducing free and compulsory primary education for all, the response from the public as well as international donors was overwhelming.

Within the first few weeks more than 1.3 million new students were enrolled. Those who had previously not been able to send their children to school rushed to the school gates and the trend has continued ever since.

The numbers speak for themselves. UNICEF figures show that by 2006, the number of children enrolled in Kenya's 18,000 primary schools had doubled, and that now almost 80 percent of girls and boys are enrolled. And according to UN Development Programme figures, the overall literacy rate has shot up to 74 percent.

But however encouraging these numbers may be, they do not tell the full story.

As free primary education has increased participation and provided children from the poorer strata of society with hope, it has at the same time created significant problems. Rapid expansion of enrolment has overcrowded classrooms and increased the number of pupils to each teacher to such a high rate that it has resulted in a decline in the quality of education.

And for the country's poorest there are still a lot of costs to bear that hinder access to schooling. While the government has waived the tuition fee and provides textbooks, other classroom materials such as exercise books are still the parent's responsibility.

"To call it free primary education is misleading," says Gerard Mwangi of Mweiga village in Central Kenya, who is the father of three daughters. "For my youngest daughter in Standard Four I still have to pay for food, transport and uniform which is adds up to 5000 shillings ($70) per term," he said.

Mwangi's next daughter is enrolled at secondary school, and at this level too government reduced tuition fees earlier this year. Yet the four years of her secondary education, even with the tuition fee reduced to almost a quarter of what it was before this year, will cost him more than $3,600 in textbooks and other classroom materials.

The enrolment numbers drop when it gets to secondary level. According to UNICEF, secondary level enrolment for both boys and girls is 42 percent while attendance level is an abysmal 12 percent.

Paul Genchu, a retired education ministry official, says that what constitutes free schooling is usually taken to be merely waiver of tuition fee and provision of textbooks and classroom material only. "There are many other essential expenses," he says.

"So, though the policy of free primary and secondary education is sound and desirable and it has worked wonders in terms of statistical indicators, it is still beyond the reach of most Kenyan families to get a child through the full course of education."

While the number of students has risen exponentially since the introduction of free primary education in 2003, the number of new teachers has increased by only 2.6 percent.

In 1973 a policy of free primary education was introduced but it had to be reversed soon after as teachers and the school infrastructure could not cope with the one million new admissions that arrived in the first two months.

Referring to this, Genchu said, "Similar problems have become visible over the last five years. The pupil-teacher ratio has risen in some cases to more than 100-1. Even the average 60-1 ratio is quite high.

"It has eroded not only the standard of basic education but also that of secondary education as now there are higher numbers of aspirants than ever before."

Genchu also points out that the gap between different schools within the government system has increased due to free provision of primary education.

"Schools in the slums and in the marginalised regions like the Northeastern Province have seen the highest rate of enrolment. Yet, these were precisely the places where the infrastructure was already weak," he says.

Another consequence of the crowding of primary schools is the flourishing business of private schools. The education ministry estimates that there are over 2000 private schools, nearly 10 times the number that there were in 2002.

"Over the last five years, many people who would normally send their children to government schools have been forced towards private schools because of overcrowding," says Josphalt Macharia who runs a mid-level private school in Nairobi's Kilimani area. It charges $200 per term at primary level.

The demand for private education, he says, is now not confined to the rich as people from all socio-economic backgrounds are looking to the private sector to get their children quality education.

The initiative for free primary education has been strongly supported by the donor community. Encouraged by the public response and the Kenyan government's political will, reflected in the disbursement of $6.8 million in emergency grants to provide for basic classroom needs including textbooks, UNICEF donated $2.5 million, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) donated $21.1 million. In 2004 additional grants of $50 million from the World Bank and $10.6 million came from DFID and the Swedish International Development Agency. The World Food Programme ($13.9 million) and OPEC ($9.9 million) too have contributed to making the programme a success.

Yet a recent research report has raised questions over the sustainability of the free primary education policy. The report compiled by CREATE (Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity), which is based at Sussex University and is funded by DFID, reviews recent research on the progress made by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda towards universal education.

The 2007 report, titled 'Policies on free primary and secondary education in East Africa' highlights research which states that while the Kenyan government raised its education budget in 2003-04 by 17.4 percent and was strongly supported by donor funding in its free primary education initiative, this may not be sustainable.

"The cost of providing free primary education is beyond the scope of the ordinary education budget, economic performance has not been strong and donor finance is often temporary. The free primary education initiative of 2003 was pursued as a matter of political expediency. It was not adequately planned and resourced and thus had the consequences of increased drop-out and falling educational quality," states the report.

In view of these challenges, the research concludes that the attainment of sustained free primary education an illusion in the context of Kenya.

Other research cited in the report states that despite the waiver on tuition fees, there remain other obstacles to enrolment especially among the poor. These include the need for children to work and concerns of parents about the quality of education, whether it leads to work and its utility later in life.

*with additional reporting by Kathryn Strachan in Johannesburg

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