February 24, 2012
Nearly a decade after the Free Primary Education (FPE) policy was introduced in Kenya, the programme has increased enrolment nationally, but some educators and parents say more needs to be done to close the educational gap between public and private schools.
President Mwai Kibaki introduced legislation in 2003 to abolish all fees in the country's eight-year primary schools as part of government efforts to encourage enrolment and prepare children to fully participate in the social, political and economic well-being of the country, according to the Ministry of Education.
Education Minister Sam Ongeri said school enrolment increased 46% over the past eight years, from 5.9 million in 2003 to over 8.6 million in 2011. The number of students who sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination also went up from 587,961 to 776, 214 during the same period.
While the programme has achieved measurable successes, some analysts say it has not reached full potential.
"The FPE programme is a basket of both success and failure," said Ken Ramani, a professor at Mount Kenya University who previously worked at the Kenya National Examination Council, the body that sets and supervises all national examinations in Kenya. "The programme has succeeded in that more children are now in school -- from slightly over 5 million in 2002 to close to 10 million in 2012," he said.
"However, that is where the good news ends," Ramani told Sabahi. "More than half of the KCPE examination candidates score less than 200 marks out of a possible 500. Also, the transition rate to secondary school is about 73%, and there are very limited vocational training opportunities."
Ramani said vocational colleges for students not proceeding to secondary schools are understaffed and poorly equipped. "The colleges use outdated curricula with old training equipment, some of which manufacturers have stopped producing, so they learn stale knowledge," he said.
The primary education system needs a new curriculum to address the needs of the country in all areas of development, Ramani said. In addition, he said, educational institutions must embrace new technology.
"What is the use of using a manual engine to teach motor vehicle engineering students when we all know that the world has embraced automatic engines? We must move with the times," he said. "We are living in the information and communications technology age and it is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, for educational institutions to have and use computers."
Additionally, the FPE programme did not properly prepare for the influx of new students, leaving schools short-staffed, Ramani said. "Previously best-performing public primary schools no longer shine due to understaffing and congestion by pupils," he said.
Ministry of Education records from 2009 show there were 170,000 teachers in charge of 8.2 million pupils, a ratio of 48-to-one.
Secretary General of the Kenya National Association of Parents (KNAP) Musau Ndunda said the FPE programme was "a good idea, but needs a proper legal framework".
"The government did not fully prepare the implementers and this led to a lot of abuse of funds," he told Sabahi.
A 2009 internal audit of the Ministry of Education revealed millions had been stolen or misappropriated from the FPE programme. In 2010, the British government, one of four international donors -- including the World Bank, Canada and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund -- announced it would stop funding the programme directly through Kenya's Education Ministry until the risks of fraud were reduced.
"The [Kenyan] government has made some progress with conditions for resumption of donor funding, but these benchmarks have not been fully met," said Alistair Fernie, head of the British Department for International Development office in Nairobi. "We do not have confidence that the necessary systems have been put in place to ensure that this does not happen again. And until we do, we cannot fund through the government."
Ndunda said the government has failed to establish a system to assess the implementation of the FPE programme, review progress and provide policy recommendations. He said lack of proper planning has also resulted in higher costs for secondary education.
Free Secondary Education (FSE) was implemented in 2009 to assist students to continue their education for free after graduating from public primary schools, but the programme was not fully funded, Ndunda said. Parents continue to incur costs to pay for books because public schools have not been able to provide them, he said.
Wachira Kigotho, a former education reporter with Kenya's The Standard newspaper, also said books are a persistent problem. "In fact, the book-per-pupil ratio has gone down since the introduction of free primary education," Kigotho told Sabahi. "Children are now sharing books. How do you expect pupils to share English and mathematics textbooks?"
The Ministry of Education has over the past two years implemented a quota system to favour pupils from public primary schools. Under the system, approximately two-thirds of the seats in public secondary schools have been given to students coming from public primary schools.
However, Ndunda said KNAP opposes the quota system, as students who choose private primary education should not penalised. "There should be a level playing field in education," he said.
"The government needs to restructure FPE and FSE; it should set up a special unit to check the implementation of the two programmes," he said. "The government has invested billions and we need to see where that money is going," Ndunda said.
To solve the book problem, he said all loopholes must be sealed, requiring a special unit to make sure that books are delivered and are not stolen or recirculated.
Despite its drawbacks, Michael Njiraini, a father of three in the Kajiado District of the Rift Valley province, told Sabahi that free education has helped keep his kids in school.
"My children were previously studying in a private primary school in Ongata Rongai, but as fate would have it, four years ago, I lost my job as a motor-vehicle engineer in a leading firm and I could not afford the fees. I had to transfer my two boys to a public primary school," he said.
"Had it not been for the free primary education, I would not have been able to educate my son up to class eight," Njiraini said.
"My son passed his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination last year and has now been admitted to a public secondary school in Nyeri, where I will also benefit from the FSE introduced by the Kibaki administration in 2009," Njiraini said.
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