President Uhuru Kenyatta and his main challenger, Raila Odinga, have both promised to offer free secondary education as soon as they get elected.
Their campaign rivalry ahead of the election in August was recently evident when they each claimed to have come up with the idea.
“President (Mwai) Kibaki gave you free primary education. We (will) give you free secondary education from January 2018,” Uhuru, who is seeking re-election, said at the beginning of June.
Launching his presidential campaign on the same day, Raila claimed that the Jubilee government had pinched the Opposition’s idea. “From September 2017, students will learn for free in all secondary schools,” he said.
The next day, Raila retorted: “You have to think. Then you have to plan. You cannot just copy, and then pledge to do it earlier.”
Maximum fees payable capped
In 2008, former President Kibaki introduced a free (day) secondary school plan. Under it, the government would only meet the cost of tuition, while parents footed the bill for boarding and uniform.
The government currently pays a grant of Sh12,870 per secondary school student. It has also capped the maximum fees payable by parents at Sh9,374 for day schools and Sh53,553 for boarding schools. There are complaints that this is often exceeded.
Political jostling aside, the two rival sides are proposing to do away with all costs of attending public secondary schools. “We want education from Standard One (primary school) to Form Four (high school) to be free. There shall be no payment of any kind,” Deputy President William Ruto said in May. His spokesman, David Mugonyi, however, told Africa Check that parents would have to pay for uniforms, as the government covers the cost of lunch.
What does the law say?
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Under the country’s constitution, every child in Kenya has a right to free and compulsory basic education. It is mandatory for any parent who is a Kenyan or whose child resides in the country to enroll them for primary and secondary education, according to the Basic Education Act of 2013.
Kenya has 8,592 public secondary schools and 1,350 private ones, according to the 2017 Economic Survey. The survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) puts the total secondary school enrollment in 2016 at 2.72 million students, from 2.56 million in 2015.
Since Kibaki’s official fee guidelines were announced in 2008, the government has only increased its contribution once, in 2015. Due to inflation, the actual cost of secondary education is higher, Kenya Secondary School Heads Association chairman Kahi Indimuli told Africa Check.
What are the additional costs?
Under the current arrangement, government and parents share the bill for utilities, the amount varying according to each school’s facilities.
School boards – and therefore parents – also have to cover the salaries of non-teaching staff – such as watchmen, cooks, groundsmen.
The pay for teachers employed by boards varies from school to school as there is no fixed rate, Indimuli said. There’s currently no data on how many of these staff have been hired.
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The same goes for non-teaching staff. They should be paid a minimum wage, but because of low funds, most schools don’t do this, he added.
If the government is to implement a policy of truly free secondary education, it will also have to shoulder the burden of regular assessment tests and build new classrooms and laboratories, Indimuli said. Currently, only national exams are covered.
The Education ministry’s 2015 proposals said the government at the national and county levels will have to pay for all infrastructure development in public schools. In the current budget, the government has allocated Sh1.2 billion for this. (Note: The President and his deputy insist they have set aside Sh5 billion for infrastructure development to absorb increased student numbers).
“Currently, secondary schools in the country can (only) absorb 80 per cent of Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) candidates to Form One due to infrastructure shortages,” the Education Sector report of September 2016 says.
“There is urgent need to provide funds for construction of additional 4,000 classrooms, 740 laboratories and other vital school infrastructure facilities so as to guarantee 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary education.”
Indimuli noted that if secondary education were completely free, the infrastructure needs would further increase, since students who dropped out due to school fees may want to return.
Lunch & uniforms
In addition to the cost of secondary school, researchers have found that some students drop out because they don’t have uniforms and can’t pay for lunch.
If the cost of lunch and a uniform is not covered by government, then the proposed policy should be called “free tuition”, Dr John Mugo, the country coordinator of Uwezo, an organisation that promotes literacy in East Africa, told Africa Check.
“(But) if that is the case, then we should call that free tuition, because what we are waiving is the fee of being taught,” he said.
What will a free plan cost taxpayers?
In the current financial year that ends in June 2017, authorities have budgeted Sh33.7 billion for free secondary education. This is set to rise to Sh39.4 billion in the next financial year.
To get the cost to government, the total fee payable for a student is multiplied with the number of students, Indimuli said. He added that additional costs such as utilities, administration and classrooms should also be considered.
Done that way, 2.72 million students multiplied by Sh22,244 maximum fee proposed by the government, with no lunch or uniform, works out to Sh60.5 billion.
That is more than twice current budget
If you add an average worked out by Africa Check from the official guidelines of Sh9,143 per student per year for lunch and uniform at an average of Sh5,400 per student, the total per head comes to Sh36,787.
So the vision of a free secondary education, where a student walks into high school complete with uniform and is assured of lunch, would cost Sh100 billion, or more than twice the current budget. For context, the total education budget is Sh67.1 billion for basic education and related expenditure.
These figures exclude the cost of constructing at least 4,000 classrooms and more than 700 science laboratories, and also paying teachers, of who there is an estimated shortfall of 47,576.
Donors might step in, but it would not be enough. For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a key donor, gave US$20 million (about Sh2 billion) in 2013 and US$13 million (Sh1.3 billion) in 2014.
The writer is the Africa Check Kenya Editor