The notorious Kibera slums, which are located on the outskirts of Nairobi, are home to an estimated 700,000 men, women and children, and are recognised within the international research community as one of the largest ‘informal settlements’ in Sub Sahara Africa.  While no government schools exist within Kibera, recent research by Professor James Tooley and his team have uncovered a large number of private primary and secondary schools that have previously not been acknowledged.

A total of 76 private primary and secondary schools, enrolling 13,349 students, have been found with approximately one third of the schools being managed by individual proprietors, and one third each by religious organisations and community self-help groups.  Monthly fees in primary schools typically range from KS. 50/- (£0.42) to Ks. 500/- (£4.17), with the average being in the range Ks. 169/- (£1.41) to Ks. 256/- (£2.13) per month.  The majority of the schools (57%) received no subsidy at all from outside, and were financed entirely out of fee income.

This research in Kenya is of particular interest because it has also found that free primary education (FPE) introduced in March 2003[1] may not have had the desired impact of increasing educational enrolment, but instead may have led to a decrease in the numbers of students enrolled in primary schools, and a decrease in quality in government schools, at least as perceived by parents.  As FPE was funded in part by a $50 million grant from World Bank and $20 million from DfID, any lessons gleaned may be valuable to development agencies globally, as well as to the Kenyan government.

While it is true that enrolment in the three government schools located on the outskirts of Kibera have increased, this needs to be set against the substantial decline in enrolment in the private schools, including private schools that have ceased to function since FPE.  In Kibera, for example, 33 private primary schools were found to have closed since FPE.  In other words, FPE seems to have led to a substantial crowding out of the private sector.

Moreover, the majority of extant private schools had experienced a serious decline in enrolment since FPE. Combining estimates of the number of children previously in the now closed schools with the decline in enrolment in existing private schools, and setting this decline against the growth of enrolment in the government schools, there may be nearly 9,000 fewer students from Kibera alone now enrolled in school, as a direct consequence of FPE.

Even if these are over-estimates, the research suggests that the net impact of FPE would be simply a transfer of children from one sector – private – to another – government, rather than a net increase in enrolment. This suggests the need for a radical reappraisal of the impact of FPE, which takes into account its effect on private schools serving low-income families, instead of, as seems to be the case officially, only looking at enrolment in government schools.

Some might argue that, if children have transferred from private to government schools, then this is a positive outcome, for private schools in the slum areas are frequently criticised as being of inadequate quality.  However, when poor parents were asked about the relative quality of public and private schools, many said that they preferred the private schools, whatever their shortcoming. Key points emerging from these discussions included:

  • Government schools are too overcrowded, especially since FPE;
  • There are high ‘hidden costs’ of government schools, that, for instance, insist poor parents meet all the formal uniform requirements before their children can be admitted – this is prohibitively expensive for poor parents;
  • The quality of teaching is higher in the private schools, partly because there has been a decline in teaching standards since the introduction of FPE.
  • In part, this is because teachers are more accountable to parents and head teachers in the private schools.

These preliminary research findings support the notion that class sizes were much higher in the government than in the private schools – with teacher-pupil ratios of 1:23 and1:57 respectively in private and government schools serving Kibera children. There were, of course, severe shortcomings in private school infrastructure, but this simply reflected the generally poor quality of buildings in the slum areas. Moreover, generally schools were able to provide basic facilities such as blackboards, chairs and benches, toilets and drinking water, and teachers were usually teaching when they should have been, and rarely absent.

One parent who I interviewd in Kibera, who had first moved his child from private to government school on the introduction of FPE, but then moved her back, summarised what had happened when free education was introduced in government schools by way of analogy:

“If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and vegetables, you have to pay for them”.

Without any assistance from government, and, in the majority of cases without assistance from any supporter, be it church, mosque or community group, our research has revealed a huge private education sector that is helping poor parents access educational opportunities.  This is a remarkable feat of ‘self-help’ that has been found to be present in some of the poorest areas of Kenya.

By recognising the existence of a vibrant private sector for the poor, and working with it rather than against it, Kenya now has a unique opportunity to think the unthinkable and blaze new trails in their search for education for all.

[1] As in many other developing countries school fees where introduced in government schools inKenya during the 1980s as part of the World Bank’s ‘cost-sharing’ programme.  However following a decade of economic decline school enrolments have decreased as increasing numbers of parents have been unable to afford the fees.  The solution promoted by UNESCO, Oxfam and countless other NGO’s has been to campaign for the introduction of free primary education by abolishing all school fees at government schools.

An edited version of the article was published in Economic Affairs, December 2005