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Meaningful change must address disparities in access to education

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The Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms has been collecting views from the public across the country. I had an opportunity to listen to presentation by different groups in some of the forums, a number of which have been covered by the media.

What comes out is that we have “many education systems in one country”. It goes beyond the proliferation of private schools following international curriculum—mostly British system, private academies for the Kenyan curriculum, home schooling and so on. Tertiary institutions are not different, especially the recent proliferation of private universities that cashed in on the commercialised access to universities.

While some appear to be challenges that policymakers and the private sector can address through reforms, there is an underlying and more intractable problem that the country has continued to ignore from Independence: disparities in access to education. Some regions have better access to facilities than others because of histories of investment. Other regions have remained disadvantaged for many years and, therefore, lack the potential to participate on an equal basis with the rest of the country.

Take, for instance, northern Kenya and parts of the Coast. Their Gross Enrolment Ratios are lower than many parts of the country. In counties such as Mandera, Garissa, Wajir, Marsabit, Isiolo, Turkana, many children are not in school or drop out after enrolment for many reasons, among them insecurity. Intercommunal conflicts often lead to closure of schools and displacement of families. Children lose time. They miss classes. There are no approaches developed to tackle this challenge.

Distance to school in some of the arid and semi-arid areas – and even in some of the well-off counties – is another barrier. Even in Nairobi, some populous areas have so few schools that children have to travel long distances. Of course this increases the transport cost and adds to the household expenditure.

But let me turn back to arid and semi-arid areas to demonstrate the impact of these disparities. These counties were neglected during the colonial and throughout the post-colonial periods. Education infrastructure is poor. Many of these counties witnessed improvement of development infrastructure only after devolution. We all heard stories in 2013 and 2014 of schoolchildren visiting towns to see ‘tarmac’.

They had not seen any – and this was just in urban areas. The neglect these counties experienced from independence shows on all fronts, including roads, health facilities and access to water. Education facilities are far apart. And because all these are pastoralists, it means some children do not have access. They would move with their parents taking livestock from one place to another. As a country, we have not developed an adaptive education system that is sensitive to the needs of pastoralists. It is true that boarding schools and feeding programmes have been in place, but these are not any solutions to histories of marginalisation.

Poor infrastructure in these regions tend to exacerbate the problem of disparities. Again, because of lack of attention to infrastructure in these counties, schools were largely neglected. The best schools were those supported by non-governmental organisations and especially religious organisations. These are the organisations that took responsibility to improve access to education but with a lot of challenges because they provide enough. And even then, the distance from one school to another, may it be primary or secondary, was and has always been so far that children take long to go to school and back.

And many, of course, face the problem of poverty. They go to school hungry. Some depend on school feeding programme for meals.

Poor school infrastructure is quite common in these areas. About 83 per cent of primary schools in Mandera lack access to safe water compared to only 15 per cent of schools in Nyeri or 24 per cent in Meru. And 71 per cent of primary schools in Marsabit lack access to safe water compared to 38 per cent in Embu.

These challenges are real and make sense only by an illustration. Some years back, I had an opportunity to travel in many administrative locations in Mandera. We were on a mission to understand the conditions for indigenous governance and civic awareness. But one morning, about 70km away from Mandera, on the road was a teenager in school uniform. It was just in the wilderness and all he had was a walking stick probably to fight wild animals as he walked on the road.

We stopped the car and asked whether he needed a lift. He agreed. I began a conversation with him. The details were shocking. The student was in a boarding secondary school about 20km away and was asked to go home for fees. He had left his parents about 10km away from school, but when the school sent him home for fees, he found the parents had uprooted their temporary shelter and moved away for pasture. He had an idea about where they could be but was not sure.

All the same, he walked along the road in the hope that he would get to their location or get someone to give him proper direction. And indeed we met a group of herders who were aware of where the family was. This was just about 5km from the main road. We helped him out of the vehicle and gave him pocket money.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected],



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