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Admission criterion could lead to collapse of public primary school education

By Peter Lomulen | February 1st 2016

Recently, the government allowed equal opportunities for admission into national schools for form one children from both public and private schools.  No doubt this was jubilation to parents taking their children to private primary schools and a big win for the owners of these schools.

Equally it seemed a sound government policy initiative.  But, I wonder how the majority of parents whose children attend public schools felt! I think little consideration was made for the long term consequences of this decision. The long term consequence of this decision in my view is collapse of the public primary school education and exacerbated inequality among Kenyan children.  

Public and private primary schools in Kenya are two different worlds apart. First, private schools benefit from investment of immense resources for the required facilities from the hefty school fees they charge. The public schools are run on shoestring budgets affording meager facilities. In essence, private schools can afford better books and a variety of revision materials. This is opposite to their public counterparts.

Second, private schools are run on strict management regulations to maximize profits for the entrepreneurs, while public schools suffer from indolence. Sometimes, the teachers in private schools are highly motivated due to honorariums offered by some of the private schools. On the other hand, colleagues at public primary schools operate mostly in difficult environments discouraging their spirited determination to excel.  

Given this scenario, it is obvious that children from private primary schools attain better grades compared to their colleagues from public schools overall. This means that most of the places at the best national schools are taken by those children from private schools leaving paltry chances for children from the public schools. The bulk of children from public schools are only left to attend additional national schools which do not match in terms of available facilities, equipment and exposure.  A casual look at major national public schools like Alliance, MaryHill, Loreto and Mangu indicate that the cutoff points range from 390 to 400 marks. This is an uphill task for a child from public schools especially those from remote areas. Yet even when it comes to availability of private schools, the best are found within the major cities like Nairobi, Mombasa and Eldoret compared to those in remote areas like Mandera, Turkana, Wajir and Samburu. In any case how many parents from these regions can afford to take their children to private schools?  In my opinion this is further marginalization and discrimination of children attending remote primary schools.

The government must reconsider the effectiveness of this decision if progress in education should level the playground for Kenyans. It cannot pretend oblivious of the high socioeconomic disparities still existing in Kenya despite introduction of the devolved system of government. It will take longer for a national school in Mandera to match Alliance or Mangu. In the long run, most parents will strive to take their children to private primary schools so that they can attain higher grades to compete for admission to the best national schools. What will it portend for majority of Kenyans? What will be the future of public primary education in the country? Or I only wonder what policy options the government is considering to address this matter fully. What happened to the quota system or the sister affirmative action?

The government must acknowledge the gravity of this matter and deal with it decisively considering the long term consequences, and not just pleasing the owners of private schools in the short term.  I believe there are many policy options the government can pursue in this regard.  There is need for the government to invest more in the national public schools in remote areas to level them to those considered the best in big cities. More importantly, the government must consider full devolution of primary school education to enable individual counties invest more in the public primary schools. It is equally important for the government to become strict with the management of public schools especially those in remote parts of the country. Or the government is left with no choice but to explain the constitution to majority of children in public schools who fail not because they are stupid but for the poor facilities and harsh environments within which they live.

Peter Lomulen is a Management and Policy Consultant.

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