Helping to tackle inequalities in Kenyan schools

The number of children in schools in Kenya has grown considerably since the passage of the Free Primary School Education (FPSE) Act in 2003, which contributed to a near-threefold increase in the pupil population. But achieving an increase in pupil numbers is not the same thing as achieving greater parity in Kenyan education. It is a well-established fact that students across the country do not have equal opportunities, and social inequalities within schools manifest themselves in several ways.

Inequalities in WASH provision

Firstly, inequalities in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) provision in schools across the country have been a common problem for many years. On matters of water, sanitation, and health service provision, some schools fare much better than others, as a study from 2016 by Save the Children demonstrated. It was found that, in this particular study, the source of inequalities in WASH provision centred on whether a school was “NGO supported” or not. One of the key observations from the report was that schools which were protected and supervised by NGOs generally had more thorough and more purposeful WASH provision than schools that were not supervised by NGOs. In the words of the authors of the study, it was a difference of “mostly functional and clean” facilities versus “partially functional and somewhat clean” facilities.

The study also revealed that, due to budgetary concerns and resource constraints, many schools were simply “unable to prioritise” WASH provision.

But it would be unfair to suggest that efforts across the country to tackle these problems have not been made at all. In 2014, the Nairobi City Council was responsible for dispensing soap and disinfectants across the city’s schools, while the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) has helped to oversee the provision of WASH facilities. But, despite such efforts, the point remains: education in Kenya is a story of inequality.

The “NGO supported”/ “non-NGO supported” dividing line is not the only one in existence. Another source of inequality is the difference in the standard of WASH provision in rural and urban settings. Indeed, over 300 km from Nairobi, in rural Nyansakia, where African Development Choices is working, new and proper toilet facilities are scarcely available in a school of over 700 pupils.

The proper provision of WASH facilities is critical for the maintenance of good health.

When children are young, and they are prioritising their learning, this is particularly vital. And in the age of COVID-19, the importance of proper WASH facilities cannot be overstated. Indeed, the updated description of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 states, “availability and access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services is fundamental to fighting the virus and preserving the health and well-being of millions”.

Resource inequalities in schools

However, inequality within Kenya’s schools is not restricted to water, sanitation and hygiene provision. Considerable inequities also exist between children across the country regarding access to learning resources. Laptops, books, and an appropriate learning environment tend to be privileges rather than defaults. In the age of a pandemic, Save the Children have said that, “for the first time in human history, an entire generation has had their education disrupted”. In Kenya, as is the case in most developing countries, this disruption has not been experienced equally. Catherine Soi of Al Jazeera, in April, reported some of the problems associated with online learning in the age of COVID-19. In Mwingi, East Kenya, Soi noted that the children there have limited electricity and internet access, while many no longer have access to hot meals provided in schools. This has been a problem across Africa, where it is estimated that nearly 80% of students have no internet access. The Kenyan state did pledge to address this situation in 2013, promising that, at a cost of $600 million, 1.3 million laptops would be awarded to children across the country. However, mobilisation on this scale has unfortunately failed to come into fruition.

Kenya is a very young society by comparative standards. The British Council’s Next Generation Kenya study suggests nearly 70% of the population is below 30 years old, while one in five Kenyans are between 15 and 24.

It is therefore crucial that as much investment as possible is directed into the most important years of those young people’s lives: in school.

The work we are doing, and the importance of community participation

At African Development Choices, we believe that everyone should have access to essential services. At Nyansakia II Primary School, we are currently working with the school’s Board of Management to construct new toilets and improve facilities. We are raising £50,000 to make this a reality.

The historical mismanagement of resources has led to deflated expectations among communities. This is particularly the case in education. Our work centres around empowering communities, by raising expectations and helping them to ensure their needs for essential services are prioritised. Nation-wide initiatives are essential in Kenya for bringing about positive change. A localised and community-based approach is equally important. This was highlighted in a 2016 Save the Children report which recommended that Kenya should “encourage child governing councils and student health clubs to take an active role in promoting hygiene and proper use and maintenance of school WASH facilities”.

The mismanagement of resources in education is not inevitable.

We believe that, through setting new precedents for accountability and transparency, communities are in a position in which they can believe in a better future. At African Development Choices, we stand for the creation of real and lasting change. In education, such a change is a necessity. As Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. It is critical that all children are given equal opportunities to utilise that weapon.

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