Education should be made free for learners

Parents and Form One students on long queues awaiting their admission at St Peters Boys Mumias. [File, Standard]

A majority of Form One students across the country reported to school on Monday. The smiles plastered on most of the students’ faces — going by the images published or broadcast by the media — betrayed their joy to finally join high school. You can imagine some traveled hundreds of kilometres from their villages to, say, Nairobi, Eldoret, Nakuru, Mombasa, Kilifi, Siaya, Nyeri; you name it, for the first time. Some were dropped off in school by their parents, guardians or family friends, carrying with them tonnes of shopping to last a whole term.

However, it was not all rosy for all the 'monos' according to what has been reported the past few days. Take the case of George Ingatwa, who set out on a journey from Nandi County to Kakamega County with nothing but a letter written by his mother to the principal of Kakamega High School. Ingatwa sat his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations at Kipsugur Primary School and scored 390 marks.

His good performance earned him a place at Kakamega High School, but there was a problem; his poor mother could not raise fare to the school, let alone the fees and upkeep. Not one to be discouraged by life’s misfortunes, Ingatwa embarked on the long journey. Some reports indicated he trekked, while others said he got a ride on a boda-boda, but the important thing is that he made it in one piece.

Struggling financially

Another case is that of Levis Rabah, who got admission to Kanga High School in Homa Bay County. Rabah’s plight touched many hearts after it was reported that he arrived in school with only two bars of soap and a metal box. His mother had failed to secure bursary or scholarship to enable him further his education. But just like Ingatwa, he did not let his circumstances define him.

Such scenarios greet us year in, year out whenever Form One students report to school. Last year was not different either. The story of a young girl who reported to school with only a bar of soap and a bra is still fresh. With the economy doing poorly, many families are struggling financially and have to choose between sending children to school or letting them languish at home hopeless.

To quote Malcolm X, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” On average, parents in national and extra-county schools pay Sh54,000, while the government pays Sh22,224, bringing the total to about Sh76,000. In boarding county schools, parents pay Sh40,000, while the government pays Sh22,224. In public day schools, the government pays the Sh22,224 for each student who is then charged Sh9,000 for meals, uniform, activities, insurance and infrastructure. So, why can’t the struggling students join public day schools, one might argue? But then, you and I know the joy of joining one’s dream school.

Private institutions

While there has been overwhelming support from well-wishers to enable Ingatwa and Rabah further their studies, any country worth its salt should not let things sink this low; it should strive to make education free for everyone.

It is encouraging that there are many Kenyans out there who are ready to sacrifice just to put a smile on the face of a poor child. Kakamega High School principal George Orina bought Ingatwa a pair of shoes, while the alumni have pledged to pay his fees from Form One to Form Four. Rabah, too, received overwhelming support from well-wishers.

While we are relieved these two cases have a happy ending after the media highlighted their cases, try to imagine similar cases that go unreported, and your guess is as good as mine. That some private institutions provide secondary education scholarships for bright but needy students is commendable, but not enough. An example is Equity Bank’s “Wings to Fly” programme.

That said, something needs to be done so that poor families can send their children to school without losing dignity in the process. The students will also have more time to focus on studies rather than worry about where their school fees will come from.

One way to do this is to study best practices in countries that have successfully implemented free education, or one that is heavily subsidised. Sweden offers free education for children aged between six and 19. Closer home, in Mauritius, according to information available online, the government provides free education from pre-primary to tertiary level. In Sri Lanka, free primary and secondary education is provided in government funded schools.

So the ball is in education stakeholders’ court to make education free or heavily subsidised to grant many struggling young people access to quality education to build themselves bright futures.

Ms Bach is a Revise Editor at The Standard.