Kenya’s constitution guarantees free public education for children and has made great strides to make that happen over the past decade.
“However, persistent historical barriers, such as poverty and distance to school, continue to prevent many children from accessing the teaching and education they deserve. For years, this has stumped education policymakers” says Andrew Zerzan, deputy regional director and director of education, arts and civil society for British Council in Sub Saharan Africa.
A recent study by UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2021). Global Out-of-school Children Initiative (OOSCI): Kenya country study found that there were still over 1.1 million primary school aged children out of the classroom last year across the country. Furthermore, British Council analysis of pre-pandemic data found that one out of seven primary school-aged children and one out of two secondary school-aged teens were out of the classroom. Research highlights that out-of-school kids and dropouts are most prevalent in isolated rural communities and crowded urban slums.
The Mathare slum in Nairobi is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Population estimates range from a quarter to half a million residents packed together in little over a square kilometre. Public services are overstretched with most residents unable to access clean water or sewer lines. There are large piles of streetside trash and the river clears most waste from people’s homes. It is estimated that roughly 40% of the population are primary school aged, 6-13 years old, but there are only a handful public schools providing for youth education.
“What can education policymakers and education funders do to get the tens of thousands of children not in school educated?” Zerzan questions.
Low-cost private schools
Although many children in Mathare remain out of school, low-cost private schools are ubiquitous and a powerful reminder of the resilience of African communities to make do with very little. The schools vary in size and quality, with only some officially registered. Most have dirt floors and holes in their corrugated metal roofs.
One of these is Daystar Primary School. Daystar has six classrooms separated by pieces of wood and paper. It sits next to the river so students learn to tolerate wet floors when the river floods or water droplets fall from the ceiling when it rains.
Founded in 2013 by a passionate teacher, Patrick Juma, the school has weathered the pandemic by skipping payments to its staff when it runs out of cash to pay them. Teachers typically earn 10 000 Kenyan Shillings – about $100 – a month in salary, but this varies depending on the ability of students’ parents to pay tuition. Like many low-cost private schools, the only way for the school to pressure parents to pay for teaching is by sending their children home until their tuition fee is settled.
The impact of poor school attendance
The evidence is clear: irregular attendance causes kids to fall behind. They miss days of instruction and, more importantly, they lose the confidence to learn. This creates a vicious cycle that is hard to escape.
Keeping kids in school is a policy priority for Kenya, as well as international best practice. However, British Council research before the pandemic showed that despite an increased proportion of children attending primary school, the percentage who fail to complete primary school was rising at a rate of 4% per year in the country.
Parents are often single mothers who work low-level service jobs that pay a daily wage. They typically are only able to afford a single meal for their families daily. They frequently struggle to pay the fee it takes to keep their children in school. This is especially the case after big shock periods, such as Christmas when parents take their children “up country” to visit relatives in distant villages, incurring transport costs and days of lost income. For Daystar’s 302 students, their teachers and Patrick, January is usually a very hard month.
Overcoming seasonal financial bumps
This year, Juma has trialled within his community a new way to overcome the seasonal financial bump and avoid having to send children home. He has launched a partnership with a local fintech start-up, Jackfruit Finance, that has kept payroll on track and students in school -and represents an education investment that education funders should pay attention to.
Short-term financing was provided for 83 students, about a quarter of those at Daystar, enabling their fee payments to be spread evenly over 8 weeks instead of requiring it all upfront. Parents are more likely to pay a small amount each week as it reflects how they earn. The school manages its collections and overall finances via a mobile app that allows it to receive mobile money payments and track each student’s repayments and debt in real-time.
The initial results of this investment in education show promise. The school has paid all staff on time and is able to better plan the school year. Most parents are on track to pay their loans back by the end of the term, if not earlier.
Comparative pupil attendance rates are much higher than in previous years, indicating that the shock of a large payment just after Christmas was likely eased by the new financing solution Daystar is offering. The numbers are compelling, with nearly two-thirds of non-financed kids sent home and missing class while only a tenth of financed kids were. The positive numbers match those of nearby Golden Bells primary school, which is also piloting the financial solution. Low-cost private schools around Mathare are seeking to follow their approach.
The free public education introduced in African countries decades ago was intended to give more children access to schooling, and countries like Kenya have made good progress in achieving that. Yet, the most economically disadvantaged too often remain outside the public school system. Innovations like those we see in the Mathare slum, where low-cost private schools are able to access financial solutions that help parents ride shocks, may be a big step forward in achieving youth education for all.