In a rush to grab attention and sway the electorate to their side, the two main political formations, the National Super Alliance and the Jubilee Party, have pledged to make secondary education free if they come to power.
This pledge follows up on the universal primary education introduced in 2003 by President Mwai Kibaki when he came to power under Narc.
Whether Jubilee or Nasa win the August 8 election, it is a certain that parents will no longer pay a single cent to have their children get a secondary education. If Jubilee wins, Free Secondary Education will become a reality from January next year. Nasa have pledged to implement the programme in September.
What this means is that 2.5 million children who are already in secondary schools will stop paying fees by January. They will be joining another 8.9 million pupils in primary schools.
This will be a huge relief to parents with children in public secondary schools who, according to government fees guidelines, have to pay Sh53,554 to keep a child in a boarding school annually. Others pay Sh9,374 for a child in a day school and Sh37,210 for one in a special needs school. Notably, the government provides a subsidy of Sh12,870 for each learner per year.
Neither Jubilee nor Nasa has given comprehensive details on how they intend to fund the free secondary education programme and make it sustainable. It is also not clear if they will be depending on donor support. It is safe to assume that “free” means “free” and that no school principal will have any power or discretion to demand any form of payment whether in cash or kind from parents.
However, if the free primary education programme is anything to go by, the path to remove the fees burden from the shoulders of parents with children in secondary school is wrought with hazards.
Free primary education was introduced to raise enrolment, participation, completion and transition rates as well as reduce the education burden on poor households. Indeed, enrolment and participation shot up from around six million to an average of 8.9 million. But if the programme has given children the opportunity of acquiring a basic education, it has also given them a raw deal with regard to the quality of learning and opportunities thereafter.
The massive surge in enrolment, congestion in classrooms, a shortage of textbooks and trained teachers has led to a sharp decline in the quality of education. This has been made worse by inordinate delays in sending cash to schools, a situation that has disrupted learning because of failure to procure learning materials on time. Primary schools are in dire need of 39,913 teachers, according to government figures. Currently, the ratio of teachers to pupils sits at 1:60. Although the government has been building more schools to increase transition to Form One, an average of 100,000 pupils still cannot be enrolled due to lack of places.
Because the programme was borne out of political expediency, with quick enforcement as a key priority, it has come at a huge cost for its failure to involve stakeholders’ thoughts and expert input.
With the programme proceeding by fits and starts, free secondary education is on its way and it, too, is bound to be caught up in the same troubles because it also is a political declaration. Notably, secondary schools are in the grip of the same weaknesses that bedevil primary schools.
This financial year alone, the government has allocated Sh32.7 billion for secondary schools where education is currently subsidised with the government paying Sh12 870 per student in three tranches of 50 per cent in the first term, 30 per cent in the second and 20 per cent in the third term. The money is meant to cater for text and exercise books, laboratory equipment, teaching and learning materials, chalk, library materials and internal examinations. It also pays for repairs and maintenance, local travel and transport, electricity, administrative costs, insurance, activity fees and personal emoluments.
However, as school principals attest, this subsidy, while helping ease the fees burden for parents is insufficient because it does not take into account the school’s peculiar needs borne out of their geographical location and inflation pressures. Still, the funds are often delayed, making it impossible for principals to be competent managers.
For example, this term’s tranche of Sh1,515 per child was only released on Monday although the term is almost half way through.
The biggest problem afflicting public schools, however, has always been congestion in dormitories, classrooms, dining halls and wherever else students congregate. Although the government has a plan in place this financial year to build more laboratories and ablution blocks across the country, the majority of public schools will still have to grapple with overcrowding in the foreseeable future and especially because the scrapping of fees will naturally lead to an enrolment surge similar to the one experienced in primary schools in 2003.
Congestion in public boarding schools has in the past been blamed for stoking frustrations and tensions among the students, leading to a wave of school fires in the recent past.
Again, public schools are faced with a severe teacher shortage. They need at least 47,576 by the government’s own estimates. And although the Government employs at least 5,000 teachers each year, the number is still not enough to plug the gaps created by natural attrition.
The problem of teacher shortages is especially poignant because it directly impacts on the quality of education, failing to give a majority of students a proper grounding in academic, sports or life skills, severely denting their chances of ever taking their studies further.
It also hurts the morale of teachers because they end up being overworked and blamed unfairly when their students fail in examinations or when indiscipline gets out of control. The fact that 37 per cent of the teaching force comprises those employed by boards of management serves to underline the severity of the problem. BOM teachers are paid directly by the schools.
Most public schools are currently grappling with the effects of inflation and the high cost of food, raising the question of how the government will resolve the issue especially given that schools don’t serve uniform meals.
Also, there are schools that operate more than one school bus, have swimming pools, computer laboratories and other amenities, which have an extra cost element to them. How will the government fund these extra facilities that are only in some schools without negating the spirit of equality?
Beyond tuition fees, most public schools charge for development projects, teacher motivation, remedial teaching, school tours, drama and music festivals, often with the approval of parents. Are these, too, going to be funded by the government?
While the idea of free secondary education is itself noble, it should be left to experts to figure out how it can be made to work in an efficient and sustainable way so that the core mandate of schools – providing quality education – is not sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.
TEN QUESTIONS FOR PARTIES
1. Will they fund education in totality or just pay tuition fees?
2. Do they intend to hire more teachers to cope with upsurge in enrolment?
3. How will enrolment be controlled?
4. Will older learners be allowed in schools?
5. How will they prepare schools to cope with increased enrolment?
6. Schools open in late August, how will Nasa implement the programme in September?
7. What plan do they have to eliminate delays in sending cash to schools?
8. Will the government inherit the debts that schools already have?
9. Will the government complete projects that parents have already started to expand their schools?
10. What plans do parties have for the large number of students who leave Form Four considering there are few technical colleges?
Kariuki Waihenya is associate editor, ‘Daily Nation’.