Tale of over-age students whose potential is held back by poverty

Philip Chepsoi 67,who went back to school at Marigat secondary school in Baringo County with other students share light moment. [Boniface Thuku, Standard]

As the world marked the International Women’s Day recently, there was something to celebrate in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gender divide among out-of-school children has narrowed to 29 per cent of girls missing out on primary education compared to 27 per cent of boys.

But according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), while girls in the sub-region have made impressive catch-up at primary schooling, their completion rate at secondary level has stagnated at 36 per cent compared to 42 per cent for boys. This means that for a variety of reasons, as they get a bit older, more girls drop out of school.

The director of UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Silvia Montoya, says the problem of out-of-school children in Sub-Saharan Africa is shifting from being a gender issue to that of disadvantaged over-agechildren irrespective of sex. Over-age primary school attendance is measured in terms of two or more years over the normal age of entry to school.

“Essentially what is emerging in Sub-Saharan Africa is that over-age children, whether girls or boys, whose education has been disrupted by conflict or early marriage, or those who started school late as a result of poverty, are more likely to drop out,” said Montoya.

But despite the progress that has been made in primary school enrolment, Kenya has a big margin of over-age children that are likely candidates of dropping out of school before completing primary or secondary education. Expectedly, North Eastern has the highest rate of over-age primary school children, while Nairobi records the lowest rate.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, on average, the national over-age primary school attendance stands at 28.5 per cent of which 33 per cent are boys against 24 per cent girls. In respect to location, 33 per cent of all primary schoolchildren in rural areas are over-aged as compared to 17 per cent of those in urban areas.

However, those statistics are highly skewed in North Eastern where 54 per cent of all children attending primary schools are over-aged, followed by the Coast at 41 per cent, Western 35 per cent, Nyanza 32 per cent, Rift Valley 31 per cent, Eastern 27 per cent, Central 10 per cent and Nairobi at 10 per cent. In all the regions, over-age primary school attendance rates are higher among boys, meaning that in most households boys are kept in school longer, while at some point girls drop out of school.

Least number

UNESCO’s education inequality database shows that in North Eastern, 59 per cent of boys in primary schools are over-aged, compared to 43 per cent of girls. At the Coast 47 per cent of boys and 34 per cent of girls are over-aged, while 35 per cent of boys in Nyanza and Rift Valley are in that category compared to 28 per cent and 26 per cent of girls, respectively.

So far, Nairobi has the least number of over-agedpupils, as only nine per cent of boys and six per cent of girls are in that group, followed closely by Central with 12 per cent boys and eight per cent girls. In Eastern, 30 per cent of boys are over-agedcompared to 23 per cent of girls.

The problem is that as girls are rarely encouraged to repeat classes, or inspired to resume when they drop out of primary school. According to Dr Damaris Parsitau, a senior lecturer at Egerton University, this has largely to do with the perceived low economic returns from girl’s education in some communities.

“Girls that might drop out of school for one reason or another are likely never to return to school because of household chores, frequent pregnancies, child-rearing, and other social and cultural restrictions,” says Parsitau, a 2017 Echidna Global Scholar at Brookings Institution.

In her study, ‘Engaging the Custodians of Tradition and Culture’, Parsitau argues that unlike boys, participation of girls in education in some communities in Kenya is still culturally interwoven with factors that have negative bearing on formal schooling opportunities.

Nevertheless, one significant finding of researchers at the UNESCO Institute of Statistics is that the pendulum is moving away from gender being the only major cause of educational inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Montoya says poverty and living in a rural area are more consistent predictors as to who stays in school, or who goes to school at all, or who eventually drops out. “Poverty now is the greatest barrier to education in Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries,” he says.

Statistics show that in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 13 per cent of children from the poorest families complete lower secondary school compared to 66 per cent for the wealthiest. No doubt this line of thinking is quite consistent with UNESCO’s data sets on education inequality in Kenya. On average 48 per cent of poorest children in Kenya enrolled in primary schools are over-aged as compared to only eight per cent of the richest category.

In terms of location, in Nairobi, only four per cent of the richest girls and six per cent of boys attending primary education are over-aged as compared to 58 per cent of the poorest boys and 43 per cent of girls in North Eastern. Similarly, only four per cent of the richest boys and three per cent of the girls in Central are over-aged as compared to 31 per cent of the poorest boys in the region. At the Coast, 65 per cent of poorest boys and 50 per cent of girls are over-aged and the litany of gaps of inequality in education is inherent in different parts of the country.

The crux of the matter is that over-age children whether boys or girls are disadvantaged for their grade in school.

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