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Free primary education policy freed many from ignorance

Monday, April 25th, 2022 00:20 | By
Retired President Kibaki with then Education CS Jacob Kaimenyi when he was awarded honorary doctorate degree at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology on May 17, 2013 during the institution’s first graduation ceremony. PHOTO/File

If there is one achievement that even former President Mwai Kibaki’s harsh critics do not dispute, it is the Free Primary Education (FPE) policy.

When the opposition coalition- the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), pledged to introduce free and universal education if it won the 2002 General Election, critics dismissed it as a daydream.

But on the very day he was sworn in to office on December 30, 2002, he set the ball rolling by announcing that the free primary education programme would kick off immediately.

So when schools opened in January 2003, hope and excitement, confusion and anxiety rolled into one as thousands of learners flocked public schools to take advantage of the free primary education. Public schools, particularly in urban areas, were filled to capacity.

With the kick off of FPE, over one million children were immediately brought into the education system.

And it was not just the children. Kimani Maruge, who would become the symbol of the free primary education, joined Standard One at Kapkenduiywo Primary School in Eldoret in 2004 at the age of 84 – all of 11 years older than the President!

Enrolment in primary school rose from 5.9 million pupils in 2002 to 7.2 million in 2003 and 8.2 million in 2007 and the numbers have kept rising.

Heavy challenges

In the FPE, the government meets all costs except school uniform which is the responsibility of parents.

There were may challenges, including logistical and teething problems, the main being the congestion in public schools which was feared would affect the quality of teaching and learning.

The new administration was accused of plunging headlong into the programme before proper planning and putting in place the necessary infrastructure.

Classes bursting at the seams meant the teacher-pupil ratio was being stretched to the limit with obvious consequences, including poor performance by public school candidates in national exams.

Some parents were forced to move their children to private schools because the learners were not getting adequate attention from teachers.

Even as he championed the policy, Kibaki acknowledged the challenges.

“Despite the heavy challenges of free education, we are committed to ensuring a conducive learning environment for students,” Kibaki said.

The transformational impact of FPE was not only acknowledged locally but also globally. 

Besides Maruge attending the United Nations 2005 World Summit in New York where he gave an address about the importance of free primary education, many international organisations and leaders praised the policy.

When former US President Bill Clinton visited Kenya in 2005, he lauded the FPE.

“How many people have we missed because they did not have the chance to show what was in their minds? The world is better when we work together, have enough chances and when no one stands in the way of others,” said Clinton.

The World Bank said that FPE lifted the country ahead of its peers, including South Africa.

The 2018 World Bank Human Capital Index placed Kenya in third place in Africa behind Seychelles and Mauritius, based on issues like expected years of school and harmonised test scores.

After five of implementing the FPE, with mixed results, the Kibaki administration sought to take the next step with the pledge to introduce free day secondary school education if he was re-elected in the 2007 General Election.

“From January 2008, my government will meet the cost of tuition in all public secondary schools at a cost of Sh4.3 billion,” said Kibaki.

Things did not, however go as planned in the election. Not only was Kibaki’s victory disputed, it degenerated into violence that drove the country into the brink of civil war.

The ceasefire administration, the Grand Coalition Government, in which Kibaki shared power with his rival Raila Odinga, had the onus of implementing the programme.

In the programme, tuition costs is covered by the government while parents pay for boarding costs. Day secondary schools are largely free.

The Jubilee administration which took over in 2013 build on Kibaki’s foundation in ensuring that quality education is accessible to as many children as possible.

For instance, President Uhuru Kenyatta introduced a new text-book policy which reduced the sharing concept that had been used in schools for years and disadvantaging some learners who barely received a copy.

Starting 2018, the government said it would start distributing text books directly to public schools, in a move aimed at locking out cartels.

By November 2017, the government had spent about Sh300 billion in FPE and subsidised secondary education.

Chronic shortage

Though free learning programme brought hope to millions of children, its implementation has had its fare share of challenges.

Questions have been raised about the quality of education that learners get in public schools.

A 2011 survey by Uwezo titled ‘Are Our Children Learning?’ showed that nationally, seven out of 10 children in Class 3 could not do Class 2 work. It also revealed a chronic shortage of teachers.

“On average, every Kenyan primary school has a shortage of four teachers. Nationally, a teacher is in charge of 52 children, and in charge of 64 children in Western province. Counties with worst teacher-pupil ratio also have worst learning levels,” the report added.

The challenges notwithstanding, the free primary and day secondary education have played a critical role in bringing Kenya closer to achieving global goals like Unesco’s Education For All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals .

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