Irony of poor urban children left out of free schooling

The UN-Habitat estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of Nairobi’s population reside in the slums – the first stop by young people coming to the city in search of a bright future.

Population growth estimates show that in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya included, slightly more than half of the population will reside in an urban context by the year 2050. What does this mean for education of children and youth who form the bulk of the urban population?

Financing basic education in Kenya is a hot policy debate and the two main sides of the political divide agree that any government in power should heavily subsidise the cost. Is education a public good or can it be sold at the market place – using the “willing seller willing buyer” principle? Outright exclusion

Outright exclusion

Put in a different way, did you go to a public or private school, and was it by choice? Whichever is the case, who paid for your education? Asking ourselves these questions is important because of two things: (i) majority of Kenyans who work pay taxes and hence expect to benefit from publicly provided services; (ii) if education is “sold” in an open but monopolised market, then chances are that the consumer may be exploited either through high fees or low quality.

Though Kenya has made significant steps through Free Primary Education (FPE), there is a considerable proportion of urban poor who hardly benefit from the programme. The African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) research has shown that at least 47 per cent of children from major urban slums in Kenya attend low fee non-state schools, and do not benefit from FPE despite it being a pro-poor programme.

The proportions vary by urban area with Nairobi at over 63 per cent, Mombasa and Eldoret at 52 per cent, and Kisumu at 13 per cent, just but to mention a few. In other wards, Kenya has a good FPE programme but the policy has failed in targeting the vote-rich urban poor. Anyone who does not have a deeper understanding of what is happening in slums with respect to education may be surprised to know the extent of exclusion from public services and presence of an emerging cartel of strategically positioned commercial entities.

Let me very quickly qualify each of these assertions.

In the case of exclusion, how would you describe a scenario where children from poor households living in urban slums pay for their primary and secondary education without getting a single dime from FPE/Free Day Secondary Education (FDSE) towards their tuition? On the other hand, public FPE/FDSE funds are disbursed to subsidise education of children from working class and elite who attend high cost public schools in Nairobi and other major urban centers in Kenya. What a misnomer! The poor have chosen to take their children to “low fee private schools” with no FPE support, while the least poor have also chosen to take their children to “high fee public primary schools” with FPE support.

The concern here is not about the least poor receiving FPE subsidies. In fact, to the contrary, they are fully entitled to that, and as Kenyans say, ‘your neighbours child, is your child’.

The concern is children living in urban slums hardly access government primary schools due to the environment in which they find themselves in, and low supply of public schools. Remember a 6-10 year-old girl or boy walking a distance of 100 metres within a slum has a high exposure to risk of physical harm. In Nairobi, for instance, we have government schools largely underutilised because their location is far away from the slum areas.

This exclusion is made worse by the quota system of admission to government secondary schools, which, thankfully, was recently reviewed by the Ministry of Education. Children from slums, such as Korogocho and Viwandani in Nairobi, who attend low fee private primary schools are grouped in the same category of admission to public secondary schools with children from Muthaiga, Runda, Kilimani and Lavington who attend the high cost private schools found in up-market estates.


By so doing, their chance of admission to a good public secondary school diminishes -- the high performers from the up-market will take up most of the spaces for the private primary school quota, due to the strong relations between academic performance and social economic background.

Let me now look at my second assertion – private providers of education in the urban slums are diverse and driven by different motives like profit, philanthropy, faith and other unknown interests. The most callous of all these providers are the profiteers. Never mind that four in every five are not registered with the ministry as providers of education.

They promise low school fees, good quality education, flexibility in school fees payment and good teachers. Unfortunately, there exists scanty data on profiteers as they operate in a closed system perhaps to safeguard themselves against real or perceived professional malpractices such as teaching to the test, drilling, and use of over scripted lessons.

What is amazing is the speed with which some international development partners have come in to support such profiteers in the name of supporting “models that work” and ‘freedom of choice’ in education delivery.

Interestingly, such models will hardly “fail” at their trial phase yet in real life, they are nothing more than global experiments conducted in Africa in the same way we were all made to believe that Structural Adjustments were practical strategies to improve African economies. What is even more intriguing is a country that adopts such models, that is, privatisation of education in poor neighbourhoods, can easily pass the “good investment climate test” and by so doing attract international investors. This is nothing more than arm-twisting African governments to buy-in to be experimental grounds.

We must, however, be careful not to taint well-intentioned Ministry of Education partners that come in to close the school supply gap or provide transparent models in collaboration with education experts.

But having said this, and with the ever expanding urban population, what can the ministry and its partners, and those seeking political leadership in the vote-rich urban areas do to reduce exclusion of needy urban children from FPE and reduce potential negative impacts of profiteering with the poor?

A number of homegrown strategies can be put in place. First, bring the so called low fee private schools under the close watch of the ministry and provide FPE capitation targeting the child and not the school. It is now more than 10 years since FPE was started and there cannot be any good reason to tell a child from urban slums why he/she cannot access FPE funds.

Failure to do this could be tantamount to breeding individuals who feel discriminated by the system.

Secondly, whether a school is registered with the ministry or not, it is prudent to know what is going on in such an institution. Failure to do so may lead to exploitation and/or introducing unhealthy agenda during curriculum implementation. There may be other strategies but this is food-for-thought to our leaders and political parties who have willingly committed to free education.

The writer is a senior research scientist and Leader of Education and Youth Empowerment research unit at the African Population and Health Research Centre; [email protected]; @mngware