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Primary schooling in Kenya – a parent’s dilemma

Margret Mukoma helps her daughter Michelle with homework - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

My son is five years old, and like any mother I want the best schooling for him. I know that doors open for the educated and the alternative in Kenya is likely to be a low-paid, high risk job. Without good schooling, my little boy could end up working 15 hours a day in a hazardous manufacturing job which provides no protective clothing. A job which pays on a daily basis, and provides no medical cover but lays you off when you get an injury and are useless to your employer. This is no far-fetched scenario: 60 per cent of Kenyans live on less than two dollars a day, and formal employment is around 20 per cent. There are no welfare payments for unemployed Kenyans who still have to pay for healthcare, food and other basic necessities. Education is the best safety net against poverty.

Enrolment rates rise – so do class sizes

Primary school has been free since 2003, with the help of 19 billion dollars of donations from the UK, Canada, and the World Bank, with the World Food Programme, UNICEF and Kenyan NGOs providing advice, training and support. In terms of enrolment numbers, it has been a great success. Enrolment rates in Kenya are up to 97 per cent, as reported by Elimu Yetu Coalition – a forum uniting all NGOs, government departments and corporate partners in the education sector in Kenya.

A classroom in a public school in Nairobi. An average classroom holds up to 70 children - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

A classroom in a public school in Nairobi. An average classroom holds up to 70 children - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

Less great is that there are now up to 70 children in each classroom and the free primary school fund has been plagued with government corruption. Like many Kenyans of my generation, I am pushing for a more unified society, shunning negative stereotypes about ethnicities other than my own. In a public school, my son would learn with children from different ethnic groups, from richer, poorer and even broken families. But I’ve got serious doubts as to whether a Kenyan state primary school can provide a good enough education to secure my son’s future.

Committed teachers are not enough

Margaret Mmboka, has been teaching at a primary school in Eastlands, a ‘low-end’ neighbourhood in Nairobi, for 21 years. She has witnessed the explosion in enrolment since free, universal primary education was introduced. “My class had 30 – 40 students,” she said. “Now I have to teach up to 60 students at a time.”

I spent two days with Mrs Mmboka, and saw she treated each child with genuine care; from solving fights to listening to stories, she seemed to have eight hands. A firm believer in public education, (she educated all her children at this school) she has little time for parents who want to educate their children privately.

“Here we teach, but there [in the private school] it is just a business,” she says, maintaining that private schools drill children to memorise how to answer questions in national exams, and how to speak ‘delicious’ English.

A student in Mrs. Mmboka's class taking notes - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

A student in Mrs. Mmboka's class taking notes - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

But there is little hiding the fact, that large class sizes and teacher shortages are having an impact. A report the education think-tank UWEZO sampled 123 districts in Kenya, in 2011 and estimated that around 60 per cent of children aged 14 were unable read a simple sentence in a test aimed at eight-year-olds. The net result is that even those Kenyans who are far from wealthy, are opting paying to educate their children privately.

Far-from-wealthy Kenyans opt for private schools

Margaret Mukoma, 43, a single mother in Eastlands, works as a receptionist at a local airstrip. She supplements her salary by selling clothes and other household items like bed sheets, blankets and curtains, bringing home around 450 US dollars a month. More than half of this is spent on private boarding school fees for her three children, two teenage boys and eight-year-old Michelle. She sees this as an investment. “The public schools were okay until when free primary education started,” she explained. “Then my sons would lie to me and never had any homework,” she said. In private schools, she says, “the teachers maintain high standards of discipline.”

Eight year old Michelle Mukoma studying at home - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

Eight year old Michelle Mukoma studying at home - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

Damacline Nyantika, 50, is also not among the wealth; she is a self-employed widow living in Kericho, a small tea-growing area deep in the Rift Valley, west of Nairobi. She does odd jobs, selling vegetables, housekeeping, babysitting and whatever else comes her way. With teachers in her local school coping up with up to 70 pupils in a class, Damacline felt her daughter Gracey, 13, was not getting attention. Public schools are free, and would make her life a little easier, but Damacline is not considering this option, “It may be free. But when you pay for something, you value it more, you take time to make it work,” she says, echoing a sentiment common among poor Kenyans.

Education budget plundered by corrupt officials

Of course, education is only ‘free’ because it is paid for through taxation and donor support. The charity Concern Worldwide Kenya supports initiatives to roll out free primary education in Kenya, encouraging people in informal settlements and marginalised rural areas to demand better services in education. Victor Odero works in their advocacy and communications team and monitors trends in education. He says corruption in the primary education sector is deeply worrying. In the past few years it has emerged that USD 46 million has been stolen from the Ministry of Education, most of it from landmark universal primary education initiative. No one has stepped down from the Ministry of Education, even in the light of these revelations.

Victor Odero believes parents need to challenge the government to do better for children - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

Victor Odero believes parents need to challenge the government to do better for children - Adrian Gathu | Panos London

“If the billions of shillings were used as they should have been, more teachers would have been employed, more schools would have been built, and there would be less congestion, better environments!”

says Victor.

He believes everything changes when parents, especially the middle class, dare the government to do better instead of taking the easier route out and shipping their children to private schools. A significant chunk of taxpayers’ money is in one way or another channelled into the education system. It is one of the biggest machines set up by the government. It must work.

‘I won’t run the risk of state schooling’

I am one of the middle class who could make the government more accountable. But my conclusion is that I will not take the risk of state schooling with my son. I know they will not give him the best possible education, how can they when money keeps vanishing? I do not want to take him to a public school by day and complement it with private tuition classes in the evening, as many parents already do. He is a child, surely he should play after school?

I will work day and night in order to afford a good education for my son. In a few years, I would like the system to have changed, so that my son can enjoy a state secondary school after starting out in the most down-to-earth private school I can find. But since I still pay my taxes faithfully, I will not stop asking questions, whether I get comfortable or not. There is a Kiswahili saying that roughly translates as, ‘if you need something from under the bed, you cannot escape bending’. I believe it is my responsibility, as a Kenyan and as a mother.







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