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Celebrating four decades of free primary education policy

KENYA @ 50
By Waweru Mugo | Jan 15th 2014 | 6 min read

By Waweru Mugo

Kenya: Old and balding, Kimani Maruge, wearing his trademark smile and aided by a stick, slowly walked into the Eldoret Kapkenduiywo Primary School in January 2004 and wrote his name into the Guinness Book of World Records.

At the prime age of 84, the former Mau Mau freedom fighter had in this brave step enrolled in Standard One, becoming the oldest person to start primary school.

His action, the kind of stuff that makes it into the movie world — indeed, a British produced film “The First Grader” featuring his life debuted years later — was a dream come true for a man who hoped education would empower him to read the Bible. Catapulted to celebrity status, Maruge had seized the opportunity presented by the Government’s introduction a year before of universal and free primary education.

“All my life, I have wanted to read the Bible,” he told the UK Mirror soon after. But swamped by the burden of bringing up a family with a dozen children, and for lack of money to finance his education, Maruge’s luck only smiled at him four decades into independence. Promptly, he sought to do what many initially had thought was a stunt — seek admission into primary school.

Years back, and specifically at independence, Kenyans were pregnant with expectations — indeed demanded during the struggle — that uhuru gives birth to Free Primary Education (FPE) among other freebies. Kanu, the party that would form the government, had raised these hopes through its manifesto. It committed to bringing social change and growing the economy through education and promising to offer universal FPE.

But this long journey was not to be as smooth. It had its near misses as policy makers tried their best to implement political pledges. Any attempt at free education translated to heightened demand for schooling and consequent introduction of various fees to seal ballooning budget gaps. Mass protestations followed such fee increases.

“The 1969 Kanu manifesto and the Development Plan 1970-74 had promised seven years of FPE for all, the same promise Kibaki was to make more than 30 years later,” Historian Charles Hornsby details in his book, Kenya: A History Since Independence. He goes on “However, to fund the growing demand, fees were soon increased, to mass protest.”

Earlier, the Kenya Education Commission 1964-65 (tasked to articulate the new education system and chaired by Prof Simeon Ominde) had while noting that it would take some time to realise, endorsed free and universal primary education as “a valid objective of educational policy”.

In 1971, the country took its first baby steps towards this direction. The Kenyatta government had a reprieve for communities in arid and semi-arid (Asal) areas. In a bold presidential decree, Jomo Kenyatta abolished tuition fees for districts such as Garissa, Wajir and Mandera (North Eastern Province), Marsabit and Isiolo (Eastern), Samburu, Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Narok, Elgeyo-Marakwet and Kajiado in Rift Valley Province, and Coast’s Tana River and Lamu. Consequently, Standard One enrolment is said to have risen from 397,000 in 1971 to 959,000 in 1972.

Another surprise

President Kenyatta would spring another education surprise soon after. In yet another decree at the 1973 Jamhuri Day celebration of the “10 Great Years of Independence”, he announced Free Primary Education for all children in Standard One to Four in the country.

This was music to the ears of many. It saw enrolment in these grades dramatically rise from 1.8 million in 1973 to 2.8 million the following year. “Almost certainly most of these new recruits were drawn from among pupils who had previously dropped out from a middle-primary grade because of financial difficulties,” Anthony Somerset notes in the (2007) research publication “A Preliminary Note on Kenya Primary School Enrolment Trends over Four Decades”.

Risky move

Hornsby says the decree was “a popular but risky move”. Notably, the enrolment which had seen sharp rise in all districts in the 1973-74 period dipped when fees were re-introduced in Standard Five. Further, as fate would have it, these bloated figures poked huge holes in the schools/education budgets. It necessitated more classes to be built while pressure on teachers grew. Schools introduced building, activity and equipment fees to cope. Again, a number of children who had joined in 1974 dropped out of school soon after owing to the new fees levied permanently.

Notes Prof Daniel Sifuna, a career educationist, “Initially, in most districts, except those in the Asal, enrolments almost doubled showing a radical change during the 1973-74 period. After that, the situation reverted to what it had been before.” It was estimated that around one to two million school age children quit school after the decree owing to introduction of the building levy.

Exit Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, a former teacher, took over the reins of power with a pledge to offer free education. Coming in yet another Jamhuri Day pronouncement, President Moi introduced a free milk programme for all primary school pupils and abolished school fees for some upper primary classes, edging closer towards FPE.

Unqualified teachers

“The implementation of the free school milk programme in 1979 also saw a surge in primary school enrolments,” writes Musembi Nungu in a journal article Universalising Access to Primary Education in Kenya: Myths and Realities. The free milk idea, Musembi states, was both to entice children to attend school and to provide some sustenance for children from poor families.

According to Hornsby, President Moi’s announcement of FPE for Standards Five and Six had enrolments go up by about a million children in 1979. The trend continued through yet another of the president’s announcement in January 1980 exempting Standard Seven children from paying fees as well. Overall, Standard One enrolment rose from 599,057 (1978) to a high of 977,000 in 1979.

The same year, the Government claimed to have realised the free universal primary education dream. This was far from the truth. Levies on parents for uniform, equipment, building fees among others were still overwhelming.

Prof Sifuna among other specialists said of the state of primary school education in the years following the decree; “Beyond the recruitment of more unqualified teachers, the government played a very minor role in the implementation of “FPE”… Overall, the effect of government intervention in primary education and the implications arising out of it made primary education much more expensive than before.

Shambolic sector

Even with the introduction of the 8-4-4 system of education from the previous 7-4-2-3, the education sector remained shambolic. There were many issues apart from the not so free education, a biting shortage of teaching staff, overcrowded curriculum, all conniving to lower the quality of primary education.

Next came Narc’s Mwai Kibaki to power, and he immediately made good the party promise for free education, announcing in 2003 the abolishing of all levies and fees. Parents would no longer pay for non-teaching staff wages, teaching and learning materials, co-curricular activities and the building of new schools. Any additional levy, the Education ministry demanded, had to have its approval.

Like Kenyatta and Moi had experimented earlier with different levels of success, Kibaki breathed life into the dreams of many who had been locked out school by the prohibitive cost of primary education. Maruge became one of the estimated 1.5 million additional pupils enroling in primary schools between January 2003 and June 2004. The spike in the numbers earned plaudits from the UN and western governments.

Speaking at a Unesco General Conference in 2007, Education minister, Prof George Saitoti put the gross enrolment rate at 112.4 per cent and the net enrolment rate at 86.5 per cent. The difference between the two rates may be associated with the thousands of over-age such as Maruge and street children and earlier school dropouts returning when schooling became free.

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