Every morning in Nairobi, Kenya, thousands of young children wake up at the crack of dawn, don their uniforms and enthusiastically go to school. Many of them have to be on the road before the sun rises to make it to their classrooms on time. This is a country where education is valued above almost all else. For many, it’s the surest way out of poverty.
In January 2003, Kenya abolished school fees for primary education, and the response since has been overwhelming. Students from all walks of life flocked to the classroom, including Kenya’s oldest learner, Kimani Maruge, who at the age of 84 sat on a school bench for the first time. Starting in January 2018, Kenya will become the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to guarantee 12 years of compulsory primary and secondary education.
But as UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring report (GEMR) points out, the free primary education policy has come at a cost, and some of Kenya’s poorest children are being left behind. As the country seeks to keep up with the fast expansion of demand, standards in many public schools have slipped, not only in terms of the formal curriculum, but also in terms of facilities. According to the GEMR, only 46% of schools in Kenya had basic drinking water in 2014, and only 21% had basic sanitation or toilets—much lower than the averages for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole (at 56% and 61%, respectively).
Though the quality of many public schools has suffered, they are still overcrowded—a testament to the intense desire among Kenyans to obtain an education. To respond to some of that demand, low-fee private schools have sprung up in many informal settlements across Kenya. These schools, which often charge as little as a few dollars a month, have sprung up around the world to fill a gap among poor communities who feel their needs are not being met by the public sector. I had the opportunity to visit one of those schools last month, as did a team of journalists from Al Jazeera. I was humbled by what I saw, and by the obvious passion and commitment to learning that these students demonstrated.
Unfortunately, the burgeoning of low-fee private schools in Kenya has outpaced the government’s capacity to ensure that they meet adequate education standards, and that is undoubtedly something that will need to be addressed. But in the meantime, they often provide a service where no alternative exists.
As more countries abolish primary school fees, they, too, will grapple with how to meet increased demand for education. And whether you live in Kenya, India, the United States or France, education has a direct impact on health and economies around the world, so this isn’t an issue we can ignore.
In this year’s edition of the GEMR, the authors ask some hard questions about who should be responsible for our children’s education. The answer: all of us.