Free and compulsory primary education for Kenyan children was one of the key pre-election promises that led the current government, led by President Mwai Kibaki, to power in December 2002.
Since then an estimated 1.5 million children, who were previously out-of-school, have turned up to attend classes. "We will not be content until every child of primary school age is enrolled…By educating the children we are investing in the future of this country. In the long term, educating children is one way to eradicate poverty," said the Minister for Education, George Saitoti, last week. Parents and children alike have greeted the move with euphoria.
At the same time, however, the reality of delivering on the pre-election pledge - made before politicians had time to consider the costs and logistical challenges involved - is becoming more and more apparent.
While the government and donors are scrambling to find money to pay for schools, teachers, and facilities, and local authorities are rushing to compile statistics on Kenya's hundreds of thousands of new school-goers, school classrooms are bulging like never before.
Many schools are coping with a 100 percent or more increase in numbers, said the Assistant Director of Education in Nairobi City Council, Margaret Thiongo. She named three schools close to slum areas of the capital, which had registered increases of 1,400, 1,400 and 1,500 respectively.
Average classroom sizes had risen from 50 to 60 and 70, with one teacher per classroom, she said, while facilities remained the same.
In many schools, teachers were forced to do shift work with separate groups of children in the mornings and afternoons, for no extra pay. "One of the biggest challenges is teachers," said Thiongo. "We need to address that very quickly."
DEPLOYMENT OF TEACHERS
Apart from finding the money to pay for extra teachers, the government also has to persuade them to take posts in "less desirable" areas. "There has been a lot of resistance from teachers and head teachers to change," the director of the Kenya support office of an Austrian donor, Drei Koenigs Aktion (DKA), told IRIN.
Many poor schools are understaffed because teachers are reluctant to go to areas where parents cannot afford to pay for private tutition after normal school hours, Killeen said. In wealthier areas, the same teachers could expect to earn an extra 10,000 ksh (US $130) per month on top of their salary of 10,000, she added.
Teachers also often refuse to work in slum areas, using security concerns as a pretext, said Killeen. One school in the Mukuru slum area of Nairobi has just been assigned three new teachers since the introduction of free education, two of whom have refused to accept the post.
"Poor areas have been used as dumping grounds for bad teachers - it was seen as a demotion," she Killeen. "Poor schools were inclined to get less good staff."
While 232,000 teachers in Kenya are currently employed, many more need to be taken on to ease their burden. The government is currently gathering statistics on how many trained teachers are unemployed, and how many are needed nationwide. Then it has to entice them to move. "The government has to think of incentives for teachers to spread them out evenly," Killeen said.
CHILDREN OUT OF SCHOOL
A combination of factors including poverty, social problems, child labour, displacement, and lack of schools and teachers in slum areas, have conspired to keep Kenya's children out of classrooms. On top of this there has been little or no regulation of schools in recent years, leading to the privatisation of public schools (with no procedures being followed) in order to charge higher fees, and all sorts of irregular practices including compulsory extra tuition fees, and very high admission fees.
Admission fees can cost several thousand shillings on top of the 500-1,000 ksh fees per term, as well as money for uniforms and books. As Kenya's economy has crumbled over the last few years, many families, forced to live on incomes of about 3,000 ksh per month, simply cannot manage the costs.
In Nairobi this resulted in 48 percent of children between the ages of six and 13 not attending school. Only 47 percent of those who were attending completed their primary education, while the remaining 53 percent dropped out, Thiongo told IRIN.
"Since the mid 1980s there was no regulation of private schools. The situation got out of hand," Killeen added. Teachers were even refusing to teach children during normal school hours, whose parents could not pay for private tuition after school.
The tens of thousands of "over-age" children - including street children, or those who dropped out of school to work and who now wish to return to finish their primary schooling, need to be catered for urgently. While statistics on their numbers are not yet available, preliminary figures show them to be enormous. In the Mukuru slum area of Nairobi, only about 500 of the 5,000 new students who enrolled in schools since the beginning of the year, were of "normal" school-going age, Killeen told IRIN.
"It's tricky how to handle them," commented Thiongo, adding that they had to be segregated from the younger children.
Street children, of whom there are an estimated 250,000 in Kenya, also pose a problem. Placing children with patchy educational backgrounds, short attention spans, dysfunctional backgrounds and glue-sniffing addictions, in a classroom of 50 or 60 "normal" children will arguably lower standards for everyone.
"They need smaller classes, interesting and interactive programmes, and teachers who can cope with them," said Killeen. On top of this, many have serious linguistic difficulties as they speak "sheng" - a blend of tribal languages, Kiswahili, and English.
Meanwhile, many other marginalised children are not even making it near a classroom. "Some don't even get past the gate, they are chased away by the guards," said Killeen. While some schools are genuinely full, others simply do not want to accept children who do not have the correct uniform, or look untidy, or have the wrong background.
A lack of facilities is a further headache. While some rural areas have adequate school buildings there are many others, particularly urban areas with large slum populations, with none at all. Many rural schools also lack even the most basic amenities such as toilets, and running water.
Despite the fact that an estimated two million people, or 60 percent of Nairobi's population, live in slum areas, in the last 15 years almost no building of schools has taken place in the city. "As a priority, we need to expand the existing schools, by building new wings, and then equip them," Thiongo told IRIN.
Another alternative may be to assist the numerous informal schools, set up by parents, church groups, and NGOs in their own communities. "Before rushing in to build schools, maybe the government can take over existing facilities or give them grants to improve them," said Killeen.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
In the meantime, Kenyan teachers and children are being asked to cope as best they can. The government has set up a task force with interested parties and donors to establish how best to move forward, and money has already started pouring in from donors.
Most importantly, many thousands of Kenyan children are able to attend school for the very first time.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions