The ever-increasing cost of school fees, uniforms, books and other school essentials continues to be a major setback for many households in Kenya that has made the much-needed education inaccessible to many children.
Public schools, which are supposed to be the custodians of basic, quality and affordable education have been at the forefront of overwhelming parents with financial costs in the name of branded school uniforms and increased costs on the termly school fees.
The 2020 class eight candidates, who sat for the KCPE 2020 afew months ago, joined form one last week and mainstream media was awash with stories of children who were called to national or county schools owing to their good performance but could not afford fees, tales of parents decrying high costs of school uniforms and fees and in one ridiculous incident, a school even turned away a student for reporting with a blue mattress instead of a maroon one.
What’s in a School Mattress?
Sadly, the student with the “wrong” colour of mattress is a beneficiary of Equity Banks’ Wings to Fly scholarship and the mattress he had, just as the other school essentials were bought by the sponsor. A mattress is just a mattress as long as it’s in the right size to fit the bed provided by the school and that was a disgraceful incident by the school.
School Uniform Cartels
School administrations have started a booming business by mandating parents to purchase branded school uniforms from schools or selected uniform distributors, whose costs are usually higher. In the wake of COVID-19, the facemasks have also become another cash cow for some schools, where they have criminalized the wearing of surgical masks and made it mandatory for students to purchase cloth facemasks from the school like the case of Gathirimu Girls in Kiambu county where students are only supposed to wear maroon cloth masks.
“When my daughter joined form one last year, the total cost of school uniform alone was Ksh 18,300. At the end of Form 2, parents are also required to purchase a new set of school uniforms once again. And now we are also forced to buy facemasks from school at the cost of Sh 50 a piece, when it would just be much more reasonable and economical to buy a box of 50 surgical masks for your child to last them until midterm, which nowadays is only after three weeks of school opening”. Susanna, a parent to a Form Two student at Gathirimu Girls lamented.
“Much worse the administration has also been increasing fees every term by almost sh 10,000. Our girls are always home due to school fees, I can even count the number of days my daughter stayed in school when schools resumed in January, as the school kept sending children away due to fee arrears contrary to the directive by the Ministry of Education, she added.
Some schools have also mandated parents to purchase items such as beddings in school, some of which have moved from the traditional pink, blue or green bedsheets to Maasai shukas, which they also sell at higher costs than retail prices.
During his tenure as Education Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiang’i had promised to crack the whip on school uniform cartels but these never materialized and especially after he was moved to the Ministry of Interior.
School uniforms have a significant impact on a child’s self-esteem and studies have also linked it to reducing cases of absenteeism and it’ therefore quite important for the government to ensure that school uniforms are accessible and subsidized across the country.
According to findings of a study by J-APL The Impact of Distributing School Uniforms on Children’s Education in Kenya, there is a strong positive impact of receiving a school uniform on student school participation.
“Giving a uniform reduces school absenteeism by 6.4 percentage points (43 percent) from a base of 15 percent school absenteeism. The effect is 3.4 percentage points larger for students who did not have a uniform at the baseline. This is a major reduction in absenteeism from a baseline school attendance level of 85 percent,” the study observed.
The High Cost of Education in Kenya
Education CS George Magoha has often issued firm directives on the issue of school fees especially in the wake of COVID-19 and often asked school heads not to turn away students due to school fees but this has never worked.
The government has been providing free primary education and secondary day schooling and a cap for secondary boarding school fees but schools have often overlooked these thanks to weak enforcement of policies and continue to burden parents with illegal levies and fees. In July this year, the ministry set fees for national schools at Sh45,054 and county schools at Sh35,035.
The Ministry of Education recently ordered secondary schools to refund fees charged beyond the amount recommended by the government but parents are not convinced that this will materialize.
“Any fees collected above the revised guidelines be refunded or treated as prepayment of fees for continuing students… No child will be sent away for non-payment of such fees,” the circular dated August 9 reads in part.
Kenya Parents Association chair Nicholas Maiyo on Tuesday said headteachers are unlikely to obey the directive as they have often blatantly ignored them.
“This can easily turn into just another declaration that will be ignored. How will the ministry ensure it is followed?” Maiyo said, urging the ministry to take firm measures to ensure what he says are not just mere declarations.
“It’s high time the ministry started auditing schools and holding them to account. There is a particular need to ensure the millions paid by parents over the years in illegal levies are accounted for. The ministry can invite the anti-graft agency and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to schools to conduct forensic audits” he said.
According to the World Bank, school fees (fees for books, materials and some exams) are among the major obstacles to universal primary education in developing countries and we can see this unfold in Kenya.
According to a recent report by the Office of the President, 250,000 girls and 125,000 boys failed to return to school in January 2021 when schools resumed learning after the 2020 closure, largely because of school fees and teenage pregnancies.
Education is part of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s BIG Four Agenda and the best legacy he can leave is seeing that his government streamlines the cost of education in the country by removing all barriers that continue to make Education inaccessible and also by improving infrastructure in our schools.
Magoha should also crack his whip and stop giving parents Lip Service!