1.5 million children out of school despite free education

An estimated 1.5 million Kenyan children are still out of school despite a free and compulsory primary education programme launched by the government early in 2003, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.

Citing child labour, lack of school uniforms and dysfunctional families as the main reasons why the children had failed to enrol in school, UNICEF said it had launched a "Child-to-Child" project to encourage school-going children to go into their neighbourhoods to identify their age-mates who did not attend school, find out why and urge them to join classes.

Heimo Laakkonen, the UNICEF country representative, said pupils participating in the project had "heard from from child domestic labourers who say that because they are busy working, they do not have the time to go to school".

"Many children do not attend school because they fear being stigmatised since their family cannot afford school uniforms," Laakkonen said in an address delivered in the capital, Nairobi, to mark the Day of the African Child.

Other children could not go to school because they "came from families with problems, in single-parent households, for example, which have not managed to ensure that their children attend school," he added.

He said a three-month pilot "Child-to-Child" survey in Nairobi, had identified 5,000 out-of-school children. A similar survey in the eastern town of Garissa had showed that 1,800 children were not taking advantage of the free primary education, while Kwale District in the coastal region had 8,000 children out of school.

A UNICEF senior programme officer, Roger Pearson, told reporters that the UN agency was "trying to help the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Home Affairs to stimulate parental and community responsibility to make sure children are going to school".

"It is every child's right to go school, [but] there are other people who have got the duty to make sure they enjoy that right," said Pearson.

"When the free primary education was declared, there was a tendency here in Kenya for parents and communities to sit back and say 'Oh well, it is not my responsibility any more, it is the government's responsibility'. But it is not only the government's responsibility; parents and communities also have a responsibility" to make sure that all children were enrolled in school, he said.

The number of children enrolled in Kenya's primary schools rose from 5.9 million to 7.2 million when the government introduced free primary education in January 2003, according to the education ministry. The country's population is estimated at about 30 million, of whom 8.7 million are children aged six to 13.