Free secondary education will be major test for election winners

Friday July 14 2017

Pupils of Kibuye Primary School in Kisumu County. Many public schools across the country have witnessed increased enrolment since the introduction of free primary education. PHOTO | JACOB OWITI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Pupils of Kibuye Primary School in Kisumu County. The implementation of free basic education reminds us that haphazard decisions have serious ramifications for the education sector and vulnerable members of society. PHOTO | JACOB OWITI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By BEATRICE AKALA

Kenyan voters are being fed a daily diet of grand promises in the lead-up to the general election.

Whichever of the two main coalitions wins power in the polls scheduled for August 8, citizens can look forward to free maternity services, free secondary school, farm subsidies, lower food prices and much more.

For better or worse, the education sector has been the easy target of numerous campaign promises. The two rival coalitions are both promising free secondary school education if elected. It’s an attractive offer given that it could ease the financial burden of millions of vulnerable families.

The pledge is not without some controversy. The ruling Jubilee Party and the rival National Super Alliance can’t seem to agree over who gave birth to the idea. Each coalition also has its own implementation strategy.

The opposition alliance has the more ambitious goal of implementing free secondary education within a month of being elected. The incumbents on the other hand are bringing forward their timeline to 2018 rather than the initial 2019.

Kenyans are no strangers to education promises. At Independence in 1963, founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta promised – but didn’t deliver – free universal primary education. It wasn’t until 2003, four decades later, that the promise finally became a reality.

It’s clear from the pronouncements made by both parties that not a lot of thought preceded the promises they are making and Kenyans are likely to be disappointed.

In retrospect, the implementation of free basic education reminds us that haphazard decisions have serious ramifications for the education sector and vulnerable members of society.

Already school heads are sounding the alarm. They want adequate infrastructure and deployment of more teachers before there is a major change in policy.

Free primary education came about thanks to the winning coalition’s 2002 election manifesto. Despite entrenching primary education as a basic right, the initiative faced numerous challenges.

There was no time to prepare the schools for the influx of learners just days into Mwai Kibaki’s presidency. School infrastructure was overstretched and the teachers were overworked. In spite of the overall success, moreover, free primary education has yet to reach all schoolgoing children.

One immediate effect of the chaos was that some parents opted for low cost private schools, particularly in slum areas. Parents went out in search of smaller classes that are associated with individualised attention and quality education.

Free basic education ended up creating inequalities that are more pronounced for poor households that can’t afford private education.

Among the challenges along the way were poor planning, procurement disputes and insecurity. There was also lack of preparedness of public schools in terms of infrastructure development and re-skilling of teachers.

A secondary education subsidy was introduced in 2008 under the national coalition government of president Kibaki and prime minister Raila Odinga. The stated aim was to curb high dropout rates by paying Ksh10,265 (about $100) per student per year towards tuition fees. Parents would have to cater for boarding and uniform requirements.

The subsidy was increased by about 25 per cent to Ksh12,870 in 2014 under President Uhuru Kenyatta. The president has intimated that the increase was in preparation for free secondary education, resulting in annual subsidy allocation rising to Ksh32 billion ($320 million).

Kenya’s secondary schools have about 2.72 million learners. This is set to rise dramatically next year when, for the first time, the country plans to achieve 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school.

With these increasing numbers, making secondary education free at the rate proposed of Ksh22,244 (about $215) per student per year means that the current budget will double to more than Ksh60 billion ($600 million).

The budget is likely to increase further if costs related to uniforms and lunch are included so as to make secondary education truly free as is being pledged.

In spite of the current subsidy, many students are not attending school due to numerous hidden costs and fees associated with school uniforms, materials, meals and administration.

This is partly because the government has proved unable to enforce official school fee guidelines for public schools. It has also struggled to remit the subsidy on time, making it harder for school managers to meet their obligations.

Planning for free education calls for sobriety to avoid a repeat of past mistakes. All stakeholders should be included in the planning of this major reform and leaders should be held accountable for the promises they make.

Beatrice Akala is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg. This article first appeared in The Conversation.