THE ILLUSION OF UNIVERSAL FREE PRIMARY EDUCATION IN KENYA
Since the achievement of independence in 1963, the government and the people of Kenya have been committed to expanding the education system to enable greater participation. This has been in response to a number of concerns. Among the main concerns have been the desire to combat ignorance, disease and poverty; and the belief that every Kenyan child has the right of access to basic welfare provisions, including education, and that the government has the obligation to provide its citizens with the opportunity to take part fully in the socio-economic and political development of the country and to attain a decent standard of living. Education has also been seen as a fundamental factor for human capital development. The effort to expand educational opportunities has been reflected in the various policy documents and development plans.1
The Kenya government policy to achieve Universal Primary Education (UPE) has to be seen within developments in the wider international context. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, declared that “everyone has a right to education.” The World Conference on Education for All (EFA), held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, sparked off a new impetus towards basic education especially with its so-called vision and renewed commitment. It noted, “that to serve the basic needs for all, requires more than a recommitment to basic education as now exists. What is needed is an expanded vision that surpasses resource levels, institutional structures, curricula and conventional delivery systems, while building on the best in the practices.”2
The Amman Mid-Decade Review of Education for All (1996) reaffirmed the commitment to the Jomtien resolutions. It observed that the provision of basic education, especially for girls, has remained elusive in many less industrialised countries. This was said to be particularly so in Africa, where ethnic tensions and conflicts have displaced many households, thus denying children opportunities of going to school. The Dakar Conference of 2000 reviewed developments in achieving UPE in the African continent. It set as one of the EFA goals “Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015” This was further endorsed by the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Among other things they set targets “to ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”3
Within this broad policy framework, since independence in 1963, the expansion of learning institutions has been one of the greatest achievements in the education sector. Kenya has achieved an impressive increase in adult literacy. The achievements in literacy have reflected the country’s impressive progress in expanding access to education during the last four decades largely by establishing a comprehensive network of schools throughout the country. The substantial expansion of education has generally resulted in an increased participation by groups that previously had little or no access to schooling. Enrolment of a greater percentage of girls and indeed the attainment of Universal Primary Education (UPE) has been the long-term objective in the primary education sub-sector.
In this short paper an attempt is made to analyse the free primary education interventions of the 1970s and that of the year 2003, focusing on key logistical issues of implementation. The policy sounds commendable as a means of cushioning children from poor socio-economic backgrounds from failing to participate in education or dropping out of school, as well as being determinative of efforts to achieve UPE and EFA. However, it is argued that the numerous problems that have bedevilled the implementation of the interventions, and the fact that the cost of it is beyond the current education budget allocation, casts very serious doubts on the viability of the current FPE experiment. This is all the more so as a similar experiment in the 1970s seems to have achieved very little in terms of expanding educational opportunities for the marginalized groups.
The Free Primary Education Declaration of the 1970s
In the 1963 elections, when the Kenya African National Union (KANU) became the ruling party, it published a manifesto entitled, What a KANU Government offers you. This manifesto committed the party to offering a minimum of seven years of free primary education. In the 1969 election manifesto the party again re-echoed its commitment to providing seven years of free primary education. It was emphasized that it was the KANU Government’s guiding principle to give priority in educational programmes to areas which were neglected during the colonial rule so that every Kenyan could share fully both in the process of nation building and in enjoying the fruits of government labour. In the more sparsely populated areas, the government pledged to continue its programme of building primary and secondary schools so that every child in those districts which had a low-average enrolment would get an opportunity to attend school. The government fees remission programme was to be continued in favour of these areas. In 1971, a presidential decree abolished tuition fees for the districts with unfavourable geographical conditions since these were said to make the populations in these areas poor. These included such areas as North-Eastern Province, the districts of Marsabit, Isiolo and Samburu in Rift Valley Province; Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Narok, Elgeyo-Marakwet and Olkejuado in Rift Valley Province, as well as Tana River and Lamu in Coast Province.4
A second presidential decree on 12 December 1973 during the celebration of the so-called “Ten Great Years of Independence” claimed to have brought the country close to achieving “universal free primary education.” The directive provided free education for children in standards I-IV in all districts of the country. It went further and provided a uniform fee structure for those in standards V-VII in the whole country. This fee was Kshs. 60/- per child per annum. Subsequent directives went further and abolished school fees in primary education.
The aim of the free primary education programme was to provide more school opportunities, especially for the poor communities. The argument was that the payment of school fees tended to prevent a large proportion of the children from attending school. The presidential decree providing free education in the early classes was one of the most dramatic political pronouncements of the Kenyatta era since it took planners and the public unaware. The financial implications as well as the various methods for its introduction were not subjected to close scrutiny. In January 1974, the Ministry of Education had to rethink its priorities in order to cope with the staggering rise of pupil enrolment. Enrolment in standard one rose by a million above the estimated figure of about 400,000. The total enrolment figure for standards one to six increased from 1.8 million in 1973 to nearly 2.8 million in January 1974.5
At the time of the abolition of school fees no counter measures were announced about how to replace the lost revenue. Initially, primary schools were at a loss as to what they could do about this lost revenue, and after failing to get clear directives, school management committees resorted to raising school revenue under the guise of a “building levy.” Ostensibly this was aimed at putting up new facilities. With the enlarged enrolment, a country-wide building programme had to be launched to cope with extra classes. Many schools were not aware of the new places needed. In some schools as many as five extra streams came into being. The building levy varied from one district to another, but in most cases, it turned out to be higher than the school fees charged prior to the decree. This frustrated many parents who had little alternative but to withdraw their children.
Initially, in most districts, except those in the ASAL (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands), enrolments almost doubled showing a radical change during the 1973-74 period. After that the situation reverted to what it had been before. It was estimated that around one to two million school age children did not continue attending school after the decree. The explanation was that many of the children who had enrolled dropped out, following the introduction of the building levy. Enrolments, even in districts that had experienced large infusions of new children, reverted to the situation before 1973.
The high drop out rates were a response, not only to the very high levies, but also to the quality of education that was being offered following the government intervention. As a result of high enrolments, there was overcrowding in classes and the supply of teaching and learning materials underwent a severe strain. Since the early 1970s their distribution had been centralized through the Kenya Equipment Scheme; it now became difficult to dispatch the necessary materials and equipment to most of the primary schools. Distribution problems were compounded by the variety of the topography and the long distances. Consequently, many of the schools went without basic teaching and learning materials for a greater part of 1974.
With regard to the teaching force, at the time of the pronouncement, the country was already short of properly trained teachers. In 1973, the teaching force stood at 56,000 teachers, out of whom 12,600 were professionally unqualified. In 1974, an additional 25,000 teachers were needed for the new classes. By 1975, the number of unqualified teachers stood at 40,000, out of a teaching force of 90,000 teachers.
With such a teaching environment, high drop out rates in primary education became inevitable. The newly instituted building fund, which was meant to be a purely spontaneous reaction to an emergency, became a permanent feature. Beyond the recruitment of more unqualified teachers, the government played a very minor role in the implementation of “free primary education.” If anything, it was quite satisfied that school committees had successfully implemented the programme with minimal cost on its part. Overall, the effect of government intervention in primary education and the implications arising out of it made primary education much more expensive than before.6
The Free Primary Education Intervention of 2003
During the 2002 general elections, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) made the provision of free primary education part of its election manifesto. Following its victory, on January 6, 2003 the Minister for Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) launched the Free Primary Education (FPE) to fulfill NARC’s election pledge. Fees and levies for tuition in primary education were abolished as the government and development partners were to meet the cost of basic teaching and learning materials as well as wages for critical non-teaching staff and co-curricular activities. The government and development partners were to pay Kshs. 1,020 for each primary child in that year. The FPE did not require parents and communities to build new schools, but they were to refurbish and use existing facilities such as community and religious buildings. If they wished to charge additional levies, school heads and committees had to obtain approval from the MoEST. This request had to be sent to the District Education Board by the Area Education Officer, after a consensus among parents through the Provincial Director of Education, a fairly lengthy and tedious process.7
Before the NARC pronouncement the number of primary schools in the country had increased steadily from 14,864 in 1990 to 18,901 in 2001/2 representing a 27.2% increase. Enrolment in absolute terms had also up gone from 5,392,319 to 6,314,726, being a 17.1% rise over the same period. The percentage of girls’ enrolment also increased in the same period to 49.3%, implying that gender parity in enrolment in primary schools at the national level had nearly been achieved. Primary school Net Enrolment Ratios (NERs), however, showed a very disturbing picture in the North Eastern Province (mainly inhabited by pastoralist communities) where boys constituted 16.5% and girls 9.8%, with an average of 13.4% for the province.
Following the NARC intervention in January 2003, it was estimated that the NER rose from around 6,314,726 to 7,614,326 by the end of the year, representing a 22.3% increase nationally. It was also estimated that another 3 million children were not enrolled in school. Despite the various logistical problems that seem to be hampering a successful implementation of the FPE, the policy sounds commendable as it has meant cushioning children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, especially girls from failing to participate in primary education or dropping out of school due to lack of fees and other school levies. Overall, the policy intervention could prove determinative in the efforts to achieve UPE and EFA.
However, while free primary education has increased participation, it has at the same time created considerable problems. It has exacerbated the problem of teaching and learning facilities. As a result of the high influx of new pupils, classrooms are congested. Many of the preliminary surveys seem to show that the existing facilities make a mockery of the free education programme. Many school management committees feel that they are seriously constrained to improve the state of learning facilities due to the government’s ban on school levies. At the same time, conditions laid down to request for concessions to institute levies are so cumbersome that they hesitate to embark on the process.8
As a result of the free primary education, the situation of the teaching force in most of the districts is generally bad. Teachers complain of increased pupil teacher ratios. Many primary schools are understaffed as a result of the free primary education programme. This does not augur well for the quality of education being delivered. Many school management committees are of the opinion that as a result on the ban of levies, they are unable to recruit extra teachers through the PTAs and this has also seriously affected the pre-school units.
Ironically, these problems are contributing to high school drop out rates, just as they did during the 1974 free primary education intervention. They have also seriously affected the inflow of pupils in primary education in the second year of FPE implementation. Districts that registered over 20% increase in enrolment in 2003, hardly recorded more than 5% of standard one enrolment this year. Most of the logistical problems bedevilling the implementation of free primary education intervention, such as lack of facilities and teachers, are well known to the educational administrators in the country. But due to the “culture of fear and silence” inculcated by the former KANU regime, coupled by an inept administration at the MoEST headquarters, the official rhetoric is that the FPE is working smoothly.
Apart from to the logistical problems in the implementation of FPE, the key question remains: is the programme sustainable? In the 2003/04 financial year, the government increased its education budget by 17.4% to Kshs.79.4 billion, with over Kshs. 7.6 billion specifically allocated to the FPE programme. The donor community, which received the FPE policy with high enthusiasm, was quick to assist the government. The World Bank, for example, gave a grant of Kshs. 3.7 billion, while the British government through the Department for International Development gave Kshs. 1.6 billion. Other donors included the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Kshs. 1.2 billion, the Swedish government, Kshs. 430 million and UNICEF Kshs. 250 million.9 It goes without saying that such donor funding is usually temporary.
The current cost of FPE is way beyond the normal education budget allocation. It is also a fact that the country’s economy has not been performing well in recent years and cannot support the realisation of the UPE goals without the infusion of outside funds. For the country to sustain universal access, there will be a need for economic growth to generate public funds for education. Otherwise, prioritising UPE is most likely to take away from the provision for other sectors of education as well as from the health sector.
The implementation of FPE, like similar interventions by previous governments, has been a matter of political expediency rather than a well thought out and planned reform. The NARC government, like its predecessors, did not carry out a situation analysis prior to the implementation of FPE. The consequence: poor quality education as a result of overcrowding, lack of teachers and of learning materials. The inefficient administration at the MoEST, which attempts to deal with problems relating to funding and infrastructure in an ad hoc manner, only serves to exacerbate the situation. With these challenges, similar to those faced by previous governments, the attainment of UPE will continue to be illusionary.
1. Okwach Abagi. Education for the next millennium. In P. Kimuya, M. Wagacha and O. Okwach, eds. Kenya’s strategic policies for the 21st Century: macroeconomic and sectoral choices. Nairobi: Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, 1999.
2. World Declaration on Education for All. Education for all and programme of action. New York, 1990.
3. Republic of Kenya and United Nations. Millennium development goals: progress report for Kenya. Nairobi, 2003.
4. D. N Sifuna. Development of education in Africa: the Kenyan experience. Nairobi: Initiatives Ltd., 1990.
5. G. Muhoho. “Universal free primary education: the Kenyan experience.” Paper presented at the Association of Teachers of African Teachers. Nairobi, 1975.
6. D. N. Sifuna. op. cit., p. 174.
7. MoEST. Free primary education: every child in school. Nairobi, 2003.
8. D. N. Sifuna. The pastoralist communities and free primary education in Kenya: a preliminary survey. Nairobi: MoEST and Action Aid-Kenya, 2003
9. Commonwealth Education Fund and Elimu Yetu Coalition. Reform agenda for education sector in Kenya: setting beacons for policy and legislative framework. Nairobi, 2003.