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Maureen was a bright pupil. She topped her class in math and English and, at age nine, was considered light years ahead of her peers – until misfortune struck.
In 2000, Maureen lost her parents to AIDS. She and her two older siblings turned for help to their aunt, who obliged by taking them in and paying their school fees. But as the cost of living escalated, her aunt could no longer afford the fees and Maureen was forced to drop out of school. For one year, she pondered her loss, her dreams gravely shattered.
In 2003, help came from an unexpected source. The new National Rainbow Coalition, led by Mwai Kibaki, rode to power on the crest of promises that included abolition of school fees. The new government’s bold move gave Maureen a second chance: She enrolled at Ayany Primary School in the heart of Kibera.
Surge in enrolment
The Kenyan Government’s initiative to scrap school fees and levies was breathtaking. Kenya had joined the league of countries in eastern and southern Africa that had abolished school fees. Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda were the forerunners, having realized early on that school fees hindered many children, especially orphans and those from marginalized communities, from accessing primary education.
In a matter of weeks, 1.3 million new pupils had poured into the country’s schools, overwhelming school infrastructure and surprising ill-prepared teachers. Schools in urban slum areas found it especially difficult to cope with the large numbers. In one example, the head teacher at Olympic Primary School in Kibera had a hard time restraining children and parents from breaking down the school gate to gain entry. Reports from Kenya’s 18,000 public schools painted similar scenes of confusion.
At Ayany Primary School, the student population soared from 1,200 to 2,000. “We had only 27 teachers in the whole school,” says School Head Ensheba Khareri. “Teachers were managing a class of 90 children instead of 50.”
The initial response of some well-to-do parents was to transfer their children to private schools, thereby raising the enrolments in these schools by 34 per cent.
Ms. Khareri and her staff did what thousands of other Kenyan educators did in the first few weeks – improvise. Children were organized in groups and a leader appointed to prefect the others. Textbooks were shared and desks, pencils and paper, already in short supply, were stretched still further.
“With time, our shock gave way to optimism,” says Ms. Khareri. “We began to see ourselves as part of history in the making. We were giving children, many of them poor and marginalized, a priceless chance. They had a hunger to learn, you could see it in their eyes, and we were not about to let them down.”
The government immediately disbursed $6.8 million in emergency grants to provide for basic needs like chalk, dusters and exercise books. This amounted to $380 per school, hardly enough to cover the overwhelming needs for extra textbooks, classrooms, and water and sanitation facilities. The international community urgently needed to step in, and this it did swiftly and generously.
UNICEF donated $2.5 million to purchase materials for makeshift classrooms, provide water and sanitation, and train teachers in child-centred interactive methods. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) donated $21.1 million, and the following year, additional grants came from the World Bank ($50 million), DFID and the Swedish International Development Agency ($10.6 million), the World Food Programme ($13.9 million) and OPEC ($9.9 million).
Bolstered by this generous support, the decision to scrap school fees has had a positive impact on Kenya’s quest to provide primary education for all children. To improve quality of learning, teachers have been trained in child-centred and gender-friendly teaching methods. Enrolments since 2002 have increased by 28 per cent, repetition rates have tumbled and more pupils are completing school than before.
In spite of the progress, however, a number of challenges remain, including the high pupil-to-teacher ratio. The total number of teachers increased by only 2.6 per cent between 2002 and 2004. As a result, in some areas, the ratio is as high as 1 teacher for every 100 pupils.
Costs and benefits
Kenya’s experience, and that of other countries that have abolished school fees, was the subject of discussion at a recent international forum organized by UNICEF and the World Bank in Nairobi. Attended by education officials from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania – as well as representatives of UN agencies and NGOs – the meeting aimed to develop guidelines for countries in Africa and elsewhere that are embarking on school-fee abolition.
The guidelines will shed light on meeting a number of challenges identified during the Nairobi meeting, including how to:
There is little question that abolishing school fees in favour of free primary schooling does require increased allocation of resources to the education sector. But for vulnerable children like Maureen Akinyi all over the developing world, the resulting benefits of school-fee abolition are priceless.