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Kenya’s abolition of school fees offers lessons for rest of Africa

© UNICEF video
Maureen Akinyi, 14, in class in Kibera, Kenya. She is one of 1.3 million new pupils who poured into the country’s schools after the national abolition of school fees in 2003.

By Victor Chinyama

NAIROBI, Kenya, 17 April 2006 – Maureen Akinyi, 14, dreamt of becoming an accountant and making it to the top of Kenya’s growing corporate sector. She came from a poor but relatively stable family in Kibera, a sprawling slum in Nairobi that is home to over 800,000 people.

Maureen was a bright pupil. She topped her class in math and English and, at age nine, was considered light years ahead of her peers – until misfortune struck.

In 2000, Maureen lost her parents to AIDS. She and her two older siblings turned for help to their aunt, who obliged by taking them in and paying their school fees. But as the cost of living escalated, her aunt could no longer afford the fees and Maureen was forced to drop out of school. For one year, she pondered her loss, her dreams gravely shattered.

In 2003, help came from an unexpected source. The new National Rainbow Coalition, led by Mwai Kibaki, rode to power on the crest of promises that included abolition of school fees. The new government’s bold move gave Maureen a second chance: She enrolled at Ayany Primary School in the heart of Kibera.

Surge in enrolment

The Kenyan Government’s initiative to scrap school fees and levies was breathtaking. Kenya joined the league of countries in eastern and southern Africa that had abolished school fees. Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda were the forerunners, having realized early on that school fees hindered many children, especially orphans and those from marginalized communities, from accessing primary education.

In a matter of weeks, 1.3 million new pupils poured into the country’s schools, overwhelming school infrastructure and surprising ill-prepared teachers. Schools in urban slum areas found it especially difficult to cope with the large numbers. In one example, the head teacher at Olympic Primary School in Kibera had a hard time restraining children and parents from breaking down the school gate to gain entry. Reports from Kenya’s 18,000 public schools painted similar scenes of confusion.

At Ayany Primary School, the student population soared from 1,200 to 2,000. “We had only 27 teachers in the whole school,” says School Head Ensheba Khareri. “Teachers were managing a class of 90 children instead of 50.”

The initial response of some well-to-do parents was to transfer their children to private schools, thereby raising the enrolments in these schools by 34 per cent.  

Ms. Khareri and her staff did what thousands of other Kenyan educators did in the first few weeks – improvise. Children were organized in groups and a leader appointed to prefect the others. Textbooks were shared and desks, pencils and paper, already in short supply, were stretched still further.

“With time, our shock gave way to optimism,” says Ms. Khareri. “We began to see ourselves as part of history in the making. We were giving children, many of them poor and marginalized, a priceless chance. They had a hunger to learn, you could see it in their eyes, and we were not about to let them down.”

© UNICEF video
Schoolchildren at Ayany Primary School in Kibera, a sprawling slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Progress and remaining challenges

The government immediately disbursed $6.8 million in emergency grants to provide for basic needs like chalk, dusters and exercise books. This amounted to $380 per school, hardly enough to cover the overwhelming needs for extra textbooks, classrooms, and water and sanitation facilities. The international community urgently needed to step in, and this it did swiftly and generously.

UNICEF provided $2.5 million to purchase materials for makeshift classrooms, provide water and sanitation, and train teachers in child-centred interactive methods. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) donated $21.1 million, and the following year, additional grants came from the World Bank ($50 million), DFID and the Swedish International Development Agency ($10.6 million), the World Food Programme ($13.9 million) and OPEC ($9.9 million).

Bolstered by this generous support, the decision to scrap school fees has had a positive impact on Kenya’s quest to provide primary education for all children. To improve the quality of learning, teachers have been trained in child-centred and gender-friendly teaching methods. Enrolments since 2002 have increased by 28 per cent, repetition rates have tumbled and more pupils are completing school than before. 

In spite of the progress, however, a number of challenges remain, including the high pupil-to-teacher ratio. The total number of teachers increased by only 2.6 per cent between 2002 and 2004. As a result, in some areas, the ratio is as high as 1 teacher for every 100 pupils.

Sharing the lessons

Kenya and other countries that have abolished school fees – including Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana – shared their experiences at an international forum organized by UNICEF and the World Bank in Nairobi last week. High-level education officials from these countries came together with representatives from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (both of which recently agreed to do away with fees) and delegates from Haiti (which is considering reforms). Representatives of the UN, the World Bank, USAID and other partner organizations participated alongside donors, NGOs and academicians, all under the umbrella of the School Fee Abolition Initiative. 

Based on lessons learned by the countries that have abolished school fees, the meeting aimed to develop a guide for others seeking to make a similar breakthrough in access to basic education. The goal is to help these countries develop education systems that are inclusive, equitable and sustainable. 

The Nairobi meeting included discussions on:

  • Implementing measures to address the surge in enrolment and preserve the quality of learning after school fees are abolished
  • Ensuring that enrolment increases among excluded and marginalized groups, such as orphans, children engaged in child labour and girls
  • Finding ways to fund schools in order to compensate for the loss in revenue, including sustaining free primary schooling through increased allocation of resources to the education sector.

“This meeting was an important step forward for the movement taking shape globally, and country by country, to provide a quantum leap in school enrolment, “ said UNICEF’s Chief of Education, Dr. Cream Wright. He added that sustaining the momentum of abolishing school fees would bring the world closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015.

“We need to move from words to deeds, from promises to results,” asserted Dr. Wright.  “The promises of school fee abolition should no longer elude so many countries that are willing to embark on such a bold initiative.”




13 April 2006: UNICEF correspondent David McKenzie reports on the effects of Kenya’s landmark abolition of school fees on 14-year-old Maureen Akinyi.

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13 April 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Blue Chevigny reports on the views of UNICEF’s Chief of Education, Dr. Cream Wright, on the issue of school-fee abolition.

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