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Crisis deepens in schools

In trying to fulfil its election pledge of offering compulsory and free primary education, the government found itself in a tight corner as schools opened early January.
Zachary Ochieng

Barely one week in office, the new government faced a daunting task as it grappled to fulfil its pledge of offering compulsory and free primary education, having won the election on that platform among others.

Experts are almost unanimous that the provision of compulsory and free primary education is feasible. Dr Jacinta Ndambuki, an education consultant, says that if taxes were collected efficiently, money would be available to fund free education. Her sentiments are shared by the Planning and Development minister, Prof Anyan'g Nyon'go, who says that the government only needs to mobilize public resources that were going to waste during the previous regime. "If wastage and plunder of public resources is stopped, there would be a huge growth in government revenue base", he asserts.

But other educationists opine that the government erred by making populist pronouncements which have in turn led to the theatre of the absurd, as children continue to flock schools in thousands, thus overstretching the limited facilities.

Kenya has only 17000 primary schools with a pupil population of 6.2 million. About 3.3 million school -age children have been out of school, while about 12million children fail to join secondary schools due to lack of school fees. Education experts attribute these high drop -out rates to the cost sharing system introduced by the government in 1988, but which was abused by head teachers, who resorted to charging all manner of levies.

But with the government's announcement of free education, poor parents whose children have been out of school rushed in their children, without even the basic necessities such as uniform and stationery. Head teachers were manhandled, even ejected out of schools when they tried to explain to parents that they could not cope with the deluge.

"We shall do whatever it takes to ensure that our children are admitted, even if it means the children learning under trees", yelled Mrs Janet Wanjiku, who took her children to Mathare Area One Primary School in Nairobi. And at Daima Primary School in Nairobi's Huruma estate, parents forcibly took over the admissions process, taking children to different classes and ordering them to sit and wait for teachers. A similar case was reported at the award winning Olympic primary school, where area Member of Parliament Raila Odinga said the government would pitch tents to accommodate extra pupils.

It does not help that the concept of free education has always been used as a political tool to woo voters. In January 2002, the then president Daniel arap Moi ordered head teachers not to charge any levies, as education was meant to be free. But the teachers defied his directive, as the government had not provided an alternative to run schools.

At the height of campaigns for the December 2002 general election, NARC insisted that free education was possible while KANU, through its presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, said the provision of free primary education was not feasible. When NARC won the election, it had to make good its promise.

Kenya is a signatory to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), both of which provide for free and compulsory basic education. The two instruments were domesticated in the Children's Act, which became effective last March. Section 7 of the Act states: "Every child is entitled to free primary education, which shall be the responsibility of the government".

But the hurried implementation of the policy has led to an influx of pupils to the limited schools, with classes being jammed beyond capacity. The parents have taken advantage of the policy by withdrawing their children from private schools which charge high fees, and sending them to public ones.

However, schools that are known to perform well in national exams have borne the heaviest brunt of the influx. Some parents have withdrawn their children from poor performing schools and taken them to those that have made a name by excelling in national exams. Consequently, pupils have been unable to learn in an enabling environment following the congestions. At Riruta Satellite Primary School, Nairobi, a class that has been accommodating 40 pupils is currently holding 80.

Education, Science and Technology Minister Prof George Saitoti admits that learning has been in disarray following the announcement of the free education policy. "Since the opening of schools, there has been an upsurge of parents seeking admission in low cost schools. We are moving fast towards the provision of immediate solutions to the problems which have been created", he says.

While issuing a guideline on the implementation of the policy on 8 January, Saitoti ordered the head teachers to refund all the levies that had been paid by parents in advance last year. The directive has not been heeded to date. In Nairobi, parents taking their children to Class One have been paying US $ 130 as an admission fee. This is usually paid in the year preceding the year of admission. The Minister also ordered all the pupils to be admitted irrespective of age.

But this has also created more problems as both underage and overage pupils have flocked to schools. At Ndile Primary School in the coastal district of Taveta, a 17-year old boy has been admitted in Class One. Said area Education Officer Cornelius Lesilale: "We have decided to enroll him to ensure that every child gets the right to education". In the same district, an 18 year-old mother has been admitted to Class One.

Saitoti also mandated the education officers to advise the government on the modalities to be used in the implementation of the controversial policy. The officers are to let parents know which schools have extra vacancies so that congestion can be reduced in those schools already overpopulated.

In what looked like an uncoordinated move, Saitoti said the government would buy chalk, text- books and dusters, but never mentioned who would pay the subordinate staff, electricity bills and food especially in boarding schools. Consequently, confusion still reigns as he said that parents would have to bear some costs in certain schools.

At a stakeholders' forum held at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) Nairobi, on 10 January, Saitoti was reported to have said that the government would not immediately employ teachers to cater for increased demand, arguing that employing teachers requires a lot of funding, which was not included in the current budget. "I can't give a commitment now on the matter because that is an issue with serious financial and budgetary implications", he said.

But Dr Ndambuki argues that proper distribution of the available teachers can alleviate this problem. According to her, some schools are overstaffed while others are experiencing severe shortages. "There is greater need to not only make primary education accessible to all children but to redefine the whole concept of primary education by distributing teachers equitably".

By the end of last year, the country had a shortage of 31000 teachers. However, the number has now gone up following the increased enrolment occasioned by the free primary education policy. The shortage of teachers has been biting against a backdrop of a government freeze on teacher employment, which was clamped in 1998. There are currently 40000 trained teachers without jobs.

The scarcity of teachers is bound to impact negatively on the performance of pupils, as the pupil to teacher ratio will not be favourable. The Secretary general of the Kenya Union of Teachers (KNUT) Francis Nganga said: "A demoralized teaching force would only grudgingly teach the large numbers of children, which may be detrimental to the learners".

What is clearly evident is that it is the teachers who have been left to bear the brunt of the confusion. They have been torn between admitting the number of pupils they can cope with and what could be seen as defying a government directive.

Saitoti has suggested that schools with large numbers of pupils operate on a rota system whereby some pupils in the lower classes of Standards One to Three can report for the morning sessions and others for the afternoon sessions. He says the government will seek an additional US $ 65 million to cater for the free education policy this year. For the current school term, he has released US $ 6.5 million.

The government has prepared a policy document titled "Education For All (EFA) Action Plan," stating that it would offer universal primary education by 2005 and make education available to everyone by 2015. But going by current developments, this goal may remain elusive considering that some parents are too poor to buy uniform and stationery.

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