Students transfer to public schools over cash crunch

Teresia Nyeri fits her son David Mwangi with a shirt at Uniform Plus in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Jasper Kamau lived a life he had always dreamed of.

Kamau (not his real name), a father of two, worked hard to take care of his family. His business was flourishing and he could afford to take his children to one of the top schools in Nairobi. He could afford to pay more than Sh200,000 fee per term for his children.

Then Covid-19 struck and schools had to close. And so did his event organising business, which was his only source of livelihood.

The collapse of the business forced Kamau to re-evaluate his expenditure. For instance, did he have to pay so much for his children’s education?

On Wednesday, Kamau found himself in a position he never imagined he would be in.

With no business and no money coming in, there was only one option – to take his two children to public school.

Kamau stood among a crowd of optimistic parents, neck craned to the voice of the head teacher at Donholm Primary School as he announced the names of learners who had passed (or failed) the entrance exams.

“I have checked the performance of the school and a good number of their candidates passed KCSE with more than 400 marks,” he said, rationalising his decision to transfer his children.

Will not be tenable

“If a good student was admitted here and they were willing to put in the work they can pass very well,” he said.

Kamau is in the same boat as thousands of parents pushed against the wall by failing businesses, pay cuts and job losses and forced to transfer their children to schools they can afford.

Parents are an increasingly anxious lot as the clock ticks to reopening of schools. The problem has not only affected parents in Nairobi. Those interviewed by The Standard in Eldoret and Kakamega cited financial difficulties as reason why they want to transfer their children to public schools.

In a fortnight, learners will be reporting back to schools, almost a year after they were closed in March to stop spread of Covid-19.

Schools in the country are inundated by applications from parents looking to transfer their children to more affordable schools.

“Covid-19 struck most parents at a time we didn’t anticipate it. Our financial streams have dried and it is a matter of finding alternative ways to survive. I have made up my mind to transfer my children to a public primary school because that is what I can afford,” said Christabel Ayieko, a parent from Emuhaya Sub-county.

Ayieko said she lost her well-paying job in Uganda after the pandemic struck and therefore it will not be tenable to keep her three children in a private boarding school in Kisumu.

“I have already talked to them and they have understood the situation. From January 4, they will join a village public school. When the situation normalises, I may consider taking them back to the private school,” she said.

That public schools, owing to their low cost, have become attractive to parents adds onto the growing strain.

Nicholas Gathemia and Kahi Indimuli, who head the Kenya Primary School Heads Association and the Kenya Secondary’s Heads Associations, respectively, said there has been a rise in the numbers of learners who are asking for admission to public schools.

“Chances are many of them will not find opportunities in the public schools because they are already over stretched. It is not an easy thing as people might think,” Indimuli said.

The principal said they have to consider space in the dormitories and the classroom before they admit new students.

Gathemia concurred that public schools were increasingly getting more requests for admission. He attributed the situation to the crackdown on unlicensed private schools as well as effects of Covid-19.

“Parents are opting to bring their children back to public schools where there is lesser burden. Parents are disoriented from job losses and some do not have the capacity to maintain their children in private schools,” he said.

“We may not admit before we know where there is a vacancy, we can only know the vacancies when the children report back. We might admit and then fail to meet the required standards for seating capacity,” he said.

Head teachers are grappling with ensuring social distancing in classrooms that were already brimming with students before the pandemic.

Gathemia is backing the introduction of learning shifts to reduce the number of learners who will be in a classroom at any given time.

“You can have two shifts where some learners report in the morning and leave in the afternoon as another class comes in,” he suggested.

Kenya’s Private Schools Association CEO Peter Ndoro said relocation and proximity, rather than cost, is a more plausible explanation.

“We have observed that as a result of Covid-19 we have had a lot of families relocate from one town to another and parents would also like to have children admitted to schools that are closer to them,” Ndoro said.

Kenya Primary School Heads Association (Kepsha) Chairman Nicholas Gathemia. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Looming crisis

At the same time, a parents lobby group has raised concern over increasing numbers in public schools especially with the requirement to maintain social distance.

National Parents Association Chairperson Nicholas Maiyo has warned of looming crisis in public schools.

“Public schools are already congested as they are without the new admissions, so how will the learners maintain social distance,” Maiyo asked.

“There is public interest in the government ensuring that private schools survive. Some 135 private schools have closed for good. Where will those learners go to? Public schools. We need to ease that pressure from schools,” he added.

Parents are also burdened with demands for new school uniforms for children.

The full resumption of learning has also taken away some of the festive cheer, especially with the government planning to restore the 16 per cent Value Added Tax (VAT) that had been lowered to 14 per cent as a relief in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic.

“The end year and Christmas festivities will be of no priority as we prepare our six children to go back to school once full resumption starts on January 4,” said Nathan Koech, a parent in Nandi County.

Koech, a second hand clothes trader, said he has spent a fortune buying food for his family and has nothing left to spend over the festive season. A parent who sought anonymity said the school where his children study had asked them to ensure they report with six branded masks and five sanitisers of 100 milliliters each.

“The cost of sanitisers has increased over the past few days and may not be affordable by next week. We urge the government to intervene and support parents,” said the parent.

[Additional reporting by Titus Too and Nathan Ochunge]

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