Quota or no quota, Kenya’s poor still can’t access quality education

His once-white shirt was tattered and his shoes covered by a thin film of dust when he finally walked through the huge Kakamega High School gate last week.

His muscles aching from the long walk — he had just trekked 48 kilometres to this place — Martin Obila cut a sorry figure.

A sorry but determined figure.

Where his Form One colleagues were spick and span, dust covered him like a nagging pest, his lips dry from dehydration.

And yet, despite the odds, the young boy could not have been happier. For 12 hours he had been on the road.

Kisumu to Kakamega. Because he could not afford the Sh200 bus fare.

Martin, 16, was hoping to be admitted into the national school to begin his secondary education.

He had none of the usual luggage: no box, no bedding, and certainly no toiletries.

His only worldly possessions when he walked through that gate were the clothes on his back, his admission letter into the institution, and a results slip that proudly indicated his stellar KCPE score: 387 marks out of a possible 500. On average, then, he had scored 77.4 per cent in every paper he had sat.

And here he was, tired, thirsty, but determined to learn.

If he could walk the almost 50 kilometres to school in this age of spaceships and inter-planetary travel, what else could stand in his way?

We use Martin’s story to get into the rights and wrongs of Kenya’s education system, which regulates admission of students into secondary schools in a very controversial manner.

The system uses quotas and affirmative action to provide a level playing field for Form One entrance, ensuring that top-performing candidates from private academies do not crowd out Martin and his counterparts from public schools and hog all the available places in prestigious national schools.

Favours public primary schools

On the surface, this seems fair. Noble even.

Everyone wants to give the disadvantaged child a chance.

However, the biggest and most recurring argument against the quota system is that it immorally favours pupils from public schools, hence prevents the brightest bulbs from private schools from getting into the institutions they deserve.

Some argue that a pupil from a public primary school with 350 marks is more likely to get a place in a national high school than one from a private school who scored over 400 marks.

So, yes, it is true that public school pupils are getting more admission letters to national schools than their private school counterparts.

However, those highly coveted admission letters are the closest most of these poor kids will get to the schools of their choice — because the cost of learning at the desired institutions is so high that unless they get outside help, they have no chance of meeting it.

And this does not make Musau Ndunda a happy man.

The secretary general of the Kenya National Association of Parents (KNAP) has been up in arms about the arbitrary raise of school fees by secondary schools heads.

“Schools are conning parents openly, and those bloated fee structures should be declared null and void,” he argues.

The man, though, has legitimate cause for worry. An article in the Business Daily last week revealed that top national schools in the country were charging astronomically high levies.

Limuru Girls High School, for instance, was charging Sh128,000 annually, more than 110 per cent the fees paid at the institution in 2009.

Others on the list were Alliance High School at Sh120,000, Moi Girls High School Eldoret at Sh102,000 and Lenana School and Nairobi Schools, both at Sh96,000 per year.

Now, if Martin cannot afford the Sh200 bus fare to Kakamega, there is no way he will pay the fortune charged in these schools.

But he is a lucky boy, because Kakamega High School, a former provincial institution which was upgraded into national school status in 2012, is charging a lot less than its counterparts: Sh66,450 per year.

And that’s where the rubber meets the road. For him and his ilk, it does not matter what the levies are.

Without support, he will just be another statistic, just one among hundreds of thousands of poor but bright kids who are unable to afford an education.

Despite the fact that pupils from public primary schools were allocated 75 per cent of the available 17,000 slots in the 105 national schools, majority of them will not be reporting even as the term begins.

They, like Martin, are too poor to afford even a fraction of the fees.

This is perhaps one of the many reasons that has seen KNAP move to the High Court to challenge the increase in levies.

KNAP’s case is premised on the fact that the increase in fees is unconstitutional, a position buttressed by the Education Act of 2013, which defines basic education as that offered in
pre-primary, primary and secondary schools.

Section 29 (1) of the Act reads: “No public school shall charge, or cause any parent or guardian to pay, tuition fees for or on behalf of any pupil in the school.”

In addition, the Act prohibits head teachers from handling finances, mandating them only with the responsibility of ensuring that pupils and students attend school.

But the situation on the ground is a mockery of the Act.

Hiked school fees have ensured that poor pupils and students stay out of school, and head teachers, who are supposed to keep their fingers out of the financial cookie pot, are the chief campaigners for the exorbitant charges.

Not practical

However, John Awiti, chairman of the Kenya Secondary School Heads Association, is making the case for the head teachers.

“The Education Act is not practical because it did not consider boarding schools at all,” says Awiti.

“Even with the Sh10,265 that the government gives for each child every year, schools would not be able to run on the Sh18,000 each student is supposed to pay annually.”

The figures he is referring to are part of recommendations by a 2009 task force, led by educationist Eddah Gachukia, that set a standardised levy of Sh18,628 per year for students in public boarding schools, and Sh3,600 for those in day schools.

The same task force recommended that the government augments that amount with Sh10,265 per child per year.

Awiti, however, argues that the economic reality has changed since then, and that the Education Act, in eradicating fees, is putting the burden of cost on the teachers.

This is why principals in boarding schools have had to raise fees to cushion their schools against the high cost of living.

On whether the raised fees are because of the boarding cost alone, the KSSHA chair points out that even the cost of tuition has gone up.

“The government does not provide enough teachers, hence schools are forced to dip into their coffers to hire teachers.

This ends up raising the tuition fees as well,” he explains, lamenting the fact that head teachers have been painted as unfeeling mercenaries out to make a quick buck while locking poor students out of learning institutions.

“Parents must be involved in any decision to raise school fees.

The procedure dictates that over 80 per cent of parents must endorse any plans to increase fees,” he says, adding that, to the best of his knowledge, all the principals have followed this procedure.

But the government earlier this month directed school heads and parents associations to stop raising fees, which means that even the guidelines Awiti is talking about are currently null.

Held liable

Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang said school heads who defied the order would be held liable.

A circular has since been issued to schools freezing any fee increments and requiring heads to maintain the fees charged last year.

Speaking at a meeting with the National Assembly’s Education committee, Dr Kipsang said the ministry was aware that some schools were charging up to Sh130,000 on new admissions, and that the government was “getting worried that public schools are being privatised”.

And so Ndunda, of KNAP, has gone to court to challenge even the current fees, which he terms illegal. But Awiti, the school heads association chair, while saying Ndunda has a right to take his case to court, advises that it would have been better if he had tried to engage all stakeholders in the education sector to find a common ground.

This is the position the government has taken, after Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi banned fee hikes along with any discussions in annual general meetings over the issue.

The CS also suspended annual teachers’ conferences and motivational fees to reward teachers, saying that the costs burdened parents.

Kaimenyi also ordered an audit into the fee increments and set up a task force that is charged with finding a solution to address the concerns of the parents, teachers and all other stakeholders in the education sector.

To Awiti, this is the way to go, and he hopes that the taskforce will come up with guidelines that everyone would be comfortable with.

In the meantime, the KNAP law suit is set for hearing on February 18, 2014. Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi, the Teachers Service Commission and education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang’ have been named as respondents in the case.

PS: Worry not about Martin Obila. Kakamega High School accepted him as he was and mobilised resources to furnish him with some of the basics.

He now has a uniform, a little shopping and a mattress and blanket for his bed.

In addition, the Migori County women’s representative, Dennitah Ghati, has pledged to pay Martin’s fees for his first year.

It seems the 16-year-old’s dream of becoming a judge is well on course!

Daily Nation - Monday, February 17, 2014

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