The first day of classes at one of Kenya’s best public schools would have been enough to test the nerves of the most seasoned educator.
More than 3,000 new pupils showed up at Olympic Primary School in Nairobi that January afternoon, straining the ability of school leaders in the capital city— and in the 17,000 public schools across Kenya—to meet a bold promise of this nation’s new president: access to free primary education.
Angry parents shouted at teachers, and some threatened to burn the principal’s office down when they were told classes were overflowing and no more children would be allowed to enroll.
Now, more than a million new students are flooding into the nation’s public schools as the National Rainbow Coalition government, under the leadership of President Mwai Kibaki, who took office in December, faces the task of making good on a pledge of free schooling. That pledge has been touted for decades by Kenyan leaders and in the paper promises of international education agreements, but has never been fully realized in the East African country of 29 million people. Primary education covers the 1st through 8th grades.
The push to provide free primary schooling in Kenya comes at a time when several international organizations, among them the Global Campaign for Education—a group that includes the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—are calling on the United States and other wealthy nations to increase support for poorer nations as they work to provide education for all children.
Kenyans who work with schools and international organizations express optimism about the new government’s ability to make the initiative work even as they warn of the difficulties ahead.
The country, for instance, faced a severe teacher shortage even before the universal primary education plan was enacted. In addition, girls have historically been shortchanged when it comes to education, as families, particularly in rural areas, rely on their daughters to stay home and help raise siblings. Making the challenge even greater is the pandemic of HIV and AIDS, which affects more than 2 million people in the country.
Ogada Kojwang, the national director of the Kenyan office of the Christian Children’s Fund, an international group that works on education, health, and early-childhood issues there and worldwide, said schools were clearly overwhelmed by the arrival of new students. While most classes are set up for about 40 pupils, the introduction of free schooling has swelled class sizes in some cases to more than 100.
“In the past, because of school fees, many of the poor people would give preference to food instead of sending kids to school,” Mr. Kojwang said. “There is a very big influx in schools now, and the school authorities have children going to school in shifts.
“In some schools, students learn under trees, out in the open. It has been dry, but when it starts raining, they will have a problem.”
But Mr. Kojwang has faith in the country’s new president, who has brought hope to Kenyans increasingly disillusioned by the corruption and mismanagement that for many were the hallmarks of former President Daniel Arap Moi’s 24-year rule.
“This time, the government is committed,” he said. “The last government was half-hearted. They said they were going to implement free education, but when it came to commitment, they lacked the political will.”
The vision for free, primary-age schooling has been a part of the political conversation in Kenya since at least the 1960s.
When the country gained its independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya’s first post- colonial president, the legendary Mzee Jomo Jomo Kenyatta, waived fees at schools in the most impoverished areas. In 1978, President Moi abolished school fees in all primary schools.
By the early 1980s, enrollment in primary schools soared, and most primary-age children were attending school. But the reality of making universal education work was severely straining resources. A spike in oil prices and fallout from government corruption helped send the economies of Kenya and other African nations reeling.
The national government shifted the financial responsibility for social programs such as education and health care to local communities that were forced to charge user fees. For many families in a country where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, those fees pushed education out of reach. Some advocacy groups argue that the policies of international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund exacerbated the problem.
Njoki Njoroge Njehu, the director of a Washington-based group called 50 Years Is Enough, a coalition of organizations that advocates debt cancellation in poor countries, said those institutions pushed Kenya and other heavily indebted countries in Africa and elsewhere to accept austere fiscal measures that have had devastating consequences.
“It’s been an ongoing crisis, and it means a lot of people have not been able to send their kids to school,” said Ms. Njehu, a Kenyan who taught high school in the 1980s. “The question became, do your kids eat, or get health care, or go to school?”
Only last week the Kenyan government, citing concerns about its education and health-care obligations, launched a debt-relief campaign, according to the newspaper the DailyNation.
Birger Fredriksen, a senior education adviser for the World Bank African regional team, acknowledged that measures to help Kenya and other African nations reduce deficits may have contributed to cuts in spending on programs such as education. But, he said, as many African economies crashed, and mismanagement became endemic, international lenders became wary of providing loans without also requiring more fiscally sound policies.
“The policies did have an impact on education and health budgets, but it’s not easy to see what the alternative would be,” Mr. Fredriksen said. “The alternative would have been for rich countries to increase their development assistance. It didn’t seem like the industrial countries were ready to do this.”
The World Bank is providing about $50 million in the form of a grant to the Kenyan government to help pay for textbooks and other supplies as the free education plan is implemented.
Other African nations that in recent years have waived user fees for education also face soaring enrollments and the challenges that go along with them. In 1994, school fees were waived in Malawi. Primary enrollment increased from 1.9 million to about 3 million a year later. When Uganda dropped user fees, primary school enrollments swelled from 2.4 million in 1996 to 6.3 million in 2000.
George Ingram, the executive director of the Washington-based Basic Education Coalition, a group of 16 development organizations that seeks more aid from developed countries for early-childhood and primary education in foreign-assistance programs, said that achieving universal primary education is a daunting task for many countries.
“There has been progress, but it hasn’t been as rapid and as deep as people would want,” Mr. Ingram said. “You start with the fundamental difficulty of development, which in countries that are torn by civil strife can’t adequately feed their populations, much less educate them.”
One out of every 16 of the world’s children of primary school age do not attend school, according to the coalition. It formed after the 2000 World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, to help advance the Education for All goal adopted by 180 nations, including Kenya, to have all primary-age children in school by 2015.
A report released last week about an initiative agreed upon at last year’s spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank to improve the capacity of poor countries’ education systems points out how much work lies ahead.
“The fast-track initiative has reached its limits in terms of what can be achieved without additional donor resources and far-reaching changes in how aid is planned and delivered,” contends the report by the London-based international-development agency ActionAid.
Andiwo Obondoh, the coordinator of the Elimu Yetu coalition, a consortium of education groups working throughout Kenya, said the discussion in Kenya now must be about more than simply access to school.
“The question of quality is important,” said Mr. Obondoh, a former high school teacher in Kenya. “The government must ensure we have quality learning materials. The main challenge is getting resources to all the public schools. We need to have long-term plans around this.”
Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.