NAIROBI, 25 Mar 2003 (IRIN) - "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." This is the new slogan which the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government has adopted in order to popularise its ambitious free primary education programme (FPE) policy.
The free and compulsory primary education for Kenyan children, which was one of the key pre-election promises which brought NARC to power in December 2002, has proved not only to be expensive, but also difficult to implement.
Some of the challenges facing the FPE programme, which began in January this year, include a severe shortage of classrooms, teachers and facilities. An unexpected 1.5 million children who were previously out-of-school, turned up to attend classes in response to the government's call, bringing a new crisis to the education sector.
In many schools, the classroom sizes, especially in the lower classes, have risen from an average of 40 pupils to 120. The number of children enrolled in primary schools is expected to further increase to over 7.5 million, from the current 5.9 million, by the end of this year, according to the education ministry.
According to a new report released by a task force set up in January to look into measures needed to facilitate the smooth implementation of the programme, it will take at least US $97.1 million for the smooth implementation of the free education policy - and that is only up to June this year. It will take another $ 137.7 million to see the programme through the 2003-2004 fiscal year period.
The task force report, launched this week at a Kenyan education stakeholders forum, contains comprehensive short, medium and long term strategies that must be undertaken by all stakeholders for the successful implementation of the FPE programme.
The report further spelled out some of the non financial challenges that the FPE programme must face if it is to be successful. It stressed the need for paying special attention to the needs of children under particularly difficult circumstances, due to poverty, neglect and abuse, such as street children.
Kenya has at least 135,000 street children, according to a report issued in 2001 by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). At least a million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Most of these children have been neglected and discriminated against and need rehabilitation - which is not only a slow process but also a "painful and expensive" one - before they can be absorbed into the formal primary school system, the report noted.
"The whole process of rehabilitation, reintegration, and placement into schools needs a multi-sectoral approach, which calls for collaboration between the government, the community, affected children, parents and key stakeholders in service delivery," the report said.
Eddah Gachukia, the taskforce chairwoman, told the forum that her team had also collected essential data on the education system countrywide. She said previously-collected data had been distorted to justify the unfair allocation of resources to certain politically-well connected regions, at the expense of others.
"We want Kenyans to be seen to be promoters of justice in education," Gachukia told the forum. "We need to accommodate all the children including all those with special needs. There should be no exclusion in this period of inclusion."
Critics have blamed the government for rushing its decision to implement the FPE policy before considering the financial and logistical challenges that are involved. The government has however stated it is determined to work towards the success of free primary education and has appealed to donors and the private sector to support the programme.
Speaking at the forum, Education Minister George Saitoti said he had no illusions about the challenges lying ahead and said the success of the free education programme depended heavily on the government's ability to mobilise resources and efficiently manage those resources.
There has been some support from the private sector. According to Phillip Okundi, who heads a committee appointed to mobilise support from the private sector, several companies have already contributed funds.
The funds will be used to buy satellite radio receivers to aid informal education in the remote arid areas of northerneastern Kenya, where many children from pastoralist families are unable to attend formal classes and education has been designed to fit into the pastoralist way of life.
The private sector is to establish a board of trustees which will regulate and supervise private sector contribution to the fund aimed at supplementing the government, Okundi said.
"We think it's important to support free education, because an educated society has the ability to thrive and develop a higher purchasing power," Okundi told the forum. "We also support it because it is part of the private sector's social responsibility."
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