Children and Schooling in Kenya

The school year in Kenya begins in January and ends at the end of November. Children enter the first year of primary school (Standard 1) at age 6. The language of instruction is mainly English, which is the children’s second or third language, and classes are also given in Kiswahili, the other official language in Kenya. There are 8 years of primary education; Standard 1 to Standard 8, at the end of which the children take exams in order to gain their KCPE, or Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education, marked out of 500. Their KCPE grades will determine which secondary school they can get into, with the best schools requiring the highest grades (over 400/500).

4 years of secondary education culminate in exams in 7 or 8 subjects for the KCSE, or Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education. Passes in an appropriate range of subjects enable a student to continue for a further 4 years in a college of higher education. Those achieving A grades in the KCSE can proceed to university.

In 2003 Kenya’s president declared free primary education for all. 1.6 million additional children enrolled in schools, resulting in serious overcrowding, often with 80 - 120 children in a classroom with 1 teacher. In Nairobi’s slums, vast numbers of children do not attend school. This is primarily because the slums are “informal settlements” which means they are not recognised and enjoy no government services whatsoever. Kibera, the largest slum with at least a million inhabitants, is served by just 5 vastly over crowded primary schools on its outskirts. This leaves the burden of education to private initiatives, which get no funding. In reality even government schooling is not completely free. Parents may have to provide a uniform, text books, a desk and basic supplies. Finally many children are needed to work to help support the family, or simply to fetch water and care for younger siblings.

Pre-primary education (ages 3 – 6) and secondary education are not free for anybody. €30-€40 (£30) a month is a typical fee at a secondary school in Nairobi. In comparison, a labourer might earn €2-3 or about £2 for a day’s work, and a primary teacher’s salary is €180 (£150) a month. Unemployment is officially 40%, though in the slums virtually nobody has regular employment. 65% of Kenya’s population lives below the official “poverty line” of a dollar a day. A student who runs into arrears with school fees is sent home to get the money owed. Some teenagers work as labourers or housemaids until they have enough that they dare to reappear at school. Others beg or drop out of school.

In Nairobi, wealth and poverty live side by side. Nobody knows how many people live in the slums, but estimates range from 2 – 3 million and still growing, as hopefuls from the countryside arrive in the city to look for employment. Drought during 2005 – 2006 meant that thousands in the north of Kenya lost their livestock and crops, and then torrential rain washed their seed away. Rains in many parts of the country failed again in 2008 and 2009. Food is short and subject to soaring inflation. Some families move from their rural homes to the city slums specifically to find education for their children. They scrape a living doing casual work and running small businesses such as hairdressing, carpentry, or buying foodstuffs, timber or clothing and reselling them from market stalls and kiosks in the streets of the slums. During the post-election violence of December 2007 and January 2008, many of these businesses were looted and burned, and livelihoods destroyed. But Kenyans are hard-working and resilient, and they also have strong family ties. The high unemployment and large numbers of orphaned children mean that the average working Kenyan supports 10 dependents.

Living conditions in the slums are extremely basic. Families of 8 or 10 live in crowded one-roomed homes made of mud, wood and cardboard, with roofs and sometimes walls of corrugated metal sheets. More recently concrete apartment blocks have been constructed in Mathare and Korogocho slums, but like the mud homes they have no running water or sanitation, and a family will typically rent a single room. They cook over wood or charcoal fires in their homes or in the streets, surrounded by rubbish and sewage. When a parent finds work for the day, there is food to eat, but with prices of basic commodities such as rice, maize, beans and cooking oil rising all the time, these children know what it means to go to bed hungry.

Officially 8% of Kenyans are HIV-positive, though those in the slums often do not know it until they fall ill with AIDS. Some agencies estimate the figure to be as high as 20%. Basic forms of anti-retroviral medication are available, sometimes at little cost, but the good nutrition and clean water essential for a patient to tolerate ARV treatment are often unaffordable to families living in the slums. TB is the number one killer of AIDS victims in Africa. Many children are orphaned in childhood or adolescence, which usually puts a halt to their education and often leaves them begging for shelter and food from relatives or well-wishers. 

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