The elimination of ignorance has been a standing objective of the Kenyan government since independence from Britain in 1963. Lately, however, the country's education sector has faced severe tests.
The increasing cost of education is pushing the global goal of "Education For All" (EFA) beyond the reach of more and more children from poor families, leading to a steady increase in the number of dropouts. At the same time, media organisations have published alarming reports of students engaging in social ills, such as arson in schools, riots, delinquency and drug abuse.
In March 2001, a fire that swept through a dormitory of the Kyanguli Secondary School in Machakos, eastern Kenya, killed at least 59 male students between the ages of 15 and 19 and further deepened the crisis in Kenya's education sector.
The fire, allegedly started by students in the school, brought into sharp focus poor living conditions in many Kenyan boarding institutions, as well as the lack of communication channels between school administrators and students. Public universities also have been affected by frequent riots and closures over disagreements between students and the university administration.
In addition, school teachers are engaged in a row with the government over the implementation of a pay rise of up to 200 percent, agreed upon with the government in 1997. The government implemented the first phase of the salary awards but said it did not have enough money to complete the rest. There are concerns that some 240,000 teachers, members of the Kenya National Union of Teachers who have threatened to go on strike over the issue, may use this election year to force the government to implement their pay increase.
OUTCRY OVER STATE OF EDUCATION
These events have raised a public outcry over the state of Kenya's education sector. "If you don't make improvements in education, then you may as well be out of the 21st century," Enos Njeru, a professor of sociology and anthropology, at the Nairobi-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR), warned.
Njeru, who is the coordinator of the Institute's social sector programme, however, believes not everything in the education sector is in a "mess". Kenya has articulate education policies in place, but problems arise from structural modalities locally and internationally, that had deep implications on policy implementation.
"There are very clear structures within the education sector. Policy, to a large extent is clear," he told IRIN.
Njeru said the current hiccups in the sector have resulted from a multiplicity of "bottlenecks" which have interfered with the smooth implementation of education policies. He pointed out that most of the problems affecting the education sector stemmed from the general increase in poverty levels and inequalities in the country, which have affected the general social and economic aspects of the country.
"You can't look at education in isolation from the socio-economic processes in the country," he stressed.
"There is a diversity of levels of illiteracy in the country. There is a substantial amount of peasantry. Kenya's society is also stratified. There is a lot more apathy in societies where people are a lot poorer. As much as the government is trying to put all children in school, there are clear mitigating factors," he noted.
Njeru's arguments are supported in an assessment the government carried out in 1999, which found that progress has been much slower than anticipated in relation to most of the major targets set for achieving EFA goals. The assessment was carried out to measure the progress Kenyan had made since the World EFA conference in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, where governments agreed to provide universal access to and completion of primary education by the year 2000.
Although the enrolment trends have been high in recent years, completion rates have consistently been below the half mark, due to high dropout rates, according to the assessment. Education ministry figures indicate that the national gross enrolment rate (GER) at primary school level stood at 88.8 percent in 1998, but only an equivalent of 47.2 percent of these children were able to complete this stage.
And although more educational opportunities have been created in the last decade, about 11 percent of eligible school age children (aged 6-13) are still out of school, particularly in the poorly-resourced arid and semi-arid regions of the country.
"Although GER indicate a positive rise, it obscures the full extent of the challenges facing education," the Kenyan EFA Assessment report stated. "For example, of the many children who enrol in primary school in Kenya, girls in particular, do not stay long enough to complete the cycle."
These gaps in education opportunities, can be explained from the perspective of increased public demand for education and training, which has stretched the government budget to the sector, Njeru explained.
However, it was the introduction of economic models designed to relieve the government budget in the 1980s, under the "structural adjustment programmes (SAP)" - which compelled the public to share the cost of health and education - and the continued dependency on donors, that did the most damage to the education sector, Njeru said.
"SAP's results were not very encouraging. A substantial number of people in society are unable to cope. All of this have an impact in education just like any other sector," he added.
Another major bottle-neck affecting the implementation of policy is the increasing number of players in both the public and private sectors, as well as individuals who had different interests, Njeru added.
The church, a key sponsor of public schools, for example has also been locked in disagreements with the government over the management of church-sponsored schools, a row leading to their frequent closures. The row has been attributed to a breakdown in communication between the Ministry of Education and the sponsors. The Catholic Church, which sponsors some 3,700 primary and secondary schools, and numerous technical schools, complained that the Ministry of Education was frustrating the church's efforts to run schools in an efficient manner.
On the payment of teachers, Njeru said the government currently dedicates a large percentage of the education budget to teachers' pay, and it was unrealistic for it to implement its promise to pay them more, due to debts and budget deficits.
However, there are efforts which the government is currently pursuing to cushion the effects of the harsh economic realities on the poor in order to make the EFA goals a reality. The government has put in place a number of "safety nets" to support the education of children in especially difficult circumstances, such as bursaries and subsidy of primary school education. It has also become clear that when educational opportunities are opened to girls and women, this brings greater benefits to the nation, Njeru said.
The government also has banned the use of corporal punishment as a method of disciplining students, in an effort to reverse the disciplinary problems in schools and promote dialogue between students and teachers.
At the tertiary levels, universities are in the process of expanding their facilities to accommodate more students, and have introduced new parallel private courses for qualified students who can afford the fees. The government also has loan and bursary schemes in place to allow for poorer students to continue with their education at the university level without dropping out, Njeru stated.
Indiscipline in schools is however a reflection of the general behaviour of society he said.
"Indiscipline is not just in the education sector. There is indiscipline all over. Political parties are not disciplined. There is an overall lack of consensus. Children live in this environment," he said.