Lack of pre-school education that makes city kids ticking time bomb

Pupils at Jitahidi ECD Centre located in Katwekera in Kibra Sub County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]
The marked rise of enrollment in early childhood education countrywide in the last two decades has masked a ticking time bomb in Nairobi.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, only a small fraction of about 300,000 three- and four-year-old children in the city’s informal settlements have access to credible pre-primary education. In fact, public institutions for early childhood education in slums are non-existent. Parents who can afford it send their children to unregulated informal daycare centres.

Emma Caddy, founder of Tiny Totos, a private organisation that promotes preschool education in informal settlements in Nairobi, says there are no public institutions providing preschool care to slum families of the urban poor and rural migrants.

According to a World Bank study, ‘Scaling up Pre-school in Kenya: Costs, Constraints and Opportunities’, Nairobi has only 185 public pre-schools, while a recent mapping of the sector indicated there are over 2,700 operational daycare centres in the city. Nairobi has fewer public pre-schools than Kirinyaga (195), Nyamira (397) and Nyeri (384).

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To make the matter worse, the city county government spends less than one per cent of its overall education budget on pre-primary education. This means the county government has almost neglected pre-primary education of children within its jurisdiction, in contravention of the County Early Childhood Education Bill, 2014 that gives every child the right to free and compulsory early childhood education.

According to Section 5(2) of the Bill, the right to early childhood education shall be enjoyed without discrimination, exclusion or restriction on the basis of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, social or economic standing, political or other opinion, property, disability or other status. In order to realise those goals, each county government is required by law “to respect, protect, promote, monitor, supervise and evaluate the right to early childhood education and guarantee mechanisms for its enforcement.”

But despite such robust legal presentations, pre-primary education in Kenya is not entirely free even in public institutions. According to the World Bank study, while in Kirinyaga it costs Sh10,300 to send one child to a pre-school per year, the average per child county government expenditure is Sh4,500, leaving a funding gap of Sh5,800 to be covered by parents. Similarly, in Nyamira, the estimated unit cost for one child stands at Sh5,500 but the county government pays only Sh2,520.

In Nairobi, while the estimated average cost for a child in a public preschool is set at Sh11,800 per year, the county government spends only Sh1,340, leaving a funding gap of Sh10,460. But the situation is worse, taking into account that there are no public pre-schools in the slums where the majority of needy children live. 

Substandard daycare

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The end result is that children lucky to enlist for pre-school learning in slums and other informal settlements in Nairobi attend substandard daycare centres that are never supervised. “There are little, if any, age-appropriate activities at play, no development or health monitoring and often there is no basic register containing a child’s key contacts or basic health details,” says Caddy.

She says academic entrepreneurs of such institutions often have little or no formal training or investment capacity and run their ventures on a day-by-day basis, with limited knowledge of the preschool curriculum or structure of the preschool education system. Of concern is that Nairobi’s public early childhood education sector has not developed much more beyond the anachronistic day-care centres that were established by the colonial regime to cater for the children of African workers’ resident in city council estates in Eastlands.

But like so many other cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Nairobi has been a magnet to thousands of rural migrants that hang precariously on an overcrowded urban edge. According to United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, Nairobi has the unsavoury reputation of having some of the most dense, unsanitary and insecure slums and squatter settlements in the world. “Those informal settlements occupy only six per cent of Nairobi’s residential land area and house about two million people that account for 50-60 per cent of the population,” says UNHabitat.

Unfortunately, there is a harsh reality that today’s uneducated children will be tomorrow’s uneducated street youth. Dr Wayne Shand, a researcher on urban social policy at the University of Manchester, says the emerging uneducated youth in urban cities in Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be characterised by extreme poverty, marginalisation and fractured pathways into adulthood.

Organised criminal gangs

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According to the International Crisis Group, uneducated urban youth with no jobs and facing an uncertain future are likely to be frustrated and angry and eventually could become ready recruits of organised urban criminal gangs or foot soldiers of armed political militias.

But the problem could be avoided by providing universal quality education at all levels. World Bank suggests Kenya could start moving down that road by revamping early childhood across the country.

According to Unicef’s ‘Global Report on Primary Education’ that was released last week, children who fail to get quality pre-school education are unlikely to develop critical skills needed to succeed in future schooling. “Such children are likely to repeat grades and quite often drop out of school and fail to complete primary or secondary education,” says the report.

UNICEF says it is during early childhood education that children gain skills of collaboration with others, self-control and motivation and develop resilience to cope with stressful and traumatic situations.  

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