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Families say ‘free schooling’ in Kenya should mean just that

Is Kenyan education in “a comatose condition”, as some say?
Is Kenyan education in “a comatose condition”, as some say?

More than ten years after primary school fees were abolished, Kenyan families are going to court to contest having to pay for schooling.

In Kenya, the right to universal basic education was enshrined in law in 2003, when free primary education was introduced. Thanks to the priority Kenya places on education, the country has high rates of literacy, with over 90% of young people (15–24) able to read and write.

However, the introduction of free universal education has put a huge strain on the system. When free primary education was announced, 1.3 million new students were signed up for school in the first few weeks. This rapid expansion led to overcrowded classrooms and a shortage of teachers. On average, the teacher to pupil ratio is around 50–1 at primary schools in Kenya (UNESCO data 2010), but in rural areas class sizes can be much larger.

Strain on secondary schools

Under Kenya’s new constitution three years ago, free education was extended by the government to secondary schools, placing further demands on the struggling state system. This is one reason why it’s still common for secondary schools to charge tuition fees, to help meet higher running costs. Families of both primary and secondary pupils are also expected to pay for food, transport, uniforms and resources such as books.

Now, some Kenyan parents are taking the government to court over school fees. The Guardian spoke to one mother in Nairobi who earns just £105 per month as a housekeeper. From these meagre earnings, Esther Muia is expected to pay £42 per month for each of her three children to attend their local secondary school. “We were told [their schooling] was to be free, but we are still paying,” she explained.

A legal matter

The current lawsuit against the education minister is being brought by the Kenyan National Association of parents, who maintain that under the law no state school in Kenya should be charging fees. The Kenyan government is expected to make its response in the next fortnight.

Meanwhile education experts say that the current argument over fees will not help to address deep-seated problems in the education system, such as lack of resources, a shortage of teachers and poor quality learning. One education commentator described the state education system in Kenya as in “a comatose condition” and warned that without radical change, many state schools will continue to remain dysfunctional and provide a poor education to the country’s children.

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