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Free education – and then what?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo NGOs try to cope with eastern Africa’s overcrowded schools

by Don Cayo


Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania are among the Eastern African countries that have in recent years dropped their previous small fees for primary education and made it free. These fees weren’t the only barrier to education – parents may still be deterred from sending their children to school by the cost of supplies or uniforms and the lost opportunity to put them to work in the families’ fields – but enrolment has nevertheless shot up, with many schools reporting more than twice as many students as before.

It’s hard to argue against any move to make schools more accessible in a world where education is increasingly a prerequisite to earning a decent living. Yet this policy is bringing with it almost as many problems as it hopes to solve. While the number of students has surged, the staff to teach them and the space to house them have increased scarcely at all. Ill-trained teachers routinely have classes with 100 students or more. Their classrooms often have no supplies, sometimes no furniture and occasionally not even solid walls. And “free school” is reduced to a sad synonym for “poor school.”

During a tour of rural schools north of the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, I got a first-hand look at the problem of schools crowded almost to the point of dysfunction, and an insight into approaches to addressing this problem.

Children are shouting and waving as the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES) four-wheel-drive jounces down what passes for the main road in Marimani, a “village” of 3,000 peasant families with home and fields sprawled over 50 or 60 square kilometres of scrubby land. “Talk about opportunity costs,” mutters Atrash Mohamed Ali, the manager of AKES’s Kenya School Improvement Project. “These children are school-going age. Yet here they are, herding goats.”

He tells me, however, that the number of school-skippers is down sharply from three or four years ago. Today it’s probably no more than 100 of the 800-plus kids in the village – about a fifth as many as it used to be before the Kenyan government waived the low but daunting fees that kept millions at home.

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Don Cayo


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