Involving Parents in Education: Role of the Kenyan Government and Non-Profit Agencies

Raymond Gachungi, Kenya, Alliance High School,  12th grade, 3rd Place Winner.

The date was December 30th, 2002. In a colourful inauguration ceremony witnessed by over 500,000 Kenyans, Mwai Kibaki, seated on a wheelchair and with his broken leg in a cast (following a near-fatal accident while on the campaign trail) said to his country in his maiden speech as President:

“There is deepening poverty in the country…school enrolment is declining. In fact the education sector, like all other sectors, is steadily deteriorating…Provision of free primary education will be [the] immediate goal.”

Come the year 2003, and he delivered on this promise to the nation. With a 5.4 billion shilling shot in the arm, the President made his dream a reality. By May of the same year, primary school (equivalent of elementary school) enrolments were at 7.2 million, up from 5.8 million the previous year. With the removal of prohibitive school fees which had for decades denied many Kenyans their right to education, children and adults alike flocked to school. The numbers were staggering, for just a decade before, in 1994, about 53% of pupils who enrolled in the country’s 8-4-4 education cycle did not complete it.

For a lot of people in Kenya, education is of vital importance. It is viewed by the poor as a vehicle to fast-track social advancement in society. The rich in turn know its significance in safeguarding their wealth for future generations. Yet the education sector is fraught with crippling problems. Kenya being a third-world country, a lot of funds which could have been spent improving the education sector are often spent on provision of basic needs such as shelter, healthcare, sanitation and water.

Despite living in Nairobi, as a student in a national public high school, I have had the unique opportunity to interact with student from all corners of the country, many of whom come from hardship areas, especially those in the northern and coastal parts of Kenya. This interaction has enabled me to form an understanding of the difficulties that encumber quality education in many parts of the country. Many of my classmates are fortunate enough to have received sponsorships for their education, whose cost would have otherwise been out of their reach. Yet this is the situation in Kenya; quality education is a preserve of those who can afford it while the rest must settle for lower standards.

In the Kenya Education Act, Revised Edition 1980, a ‘school’ is defined as “an institution in which not less than 10 pupils receive regular instruction”. Thus, after the introduction of the Free Primary Education Programme, it was rather commonplace in rural areas to find 10 pupils seated under a tree with their solitary teacher, and this would constitutionally constitute a ‘school’. With the overwhelming increase in admissions in 2003, existing school facilities simply could not cope. This saw average school sizes in many urban public schools increase from about 340 to about 400.

There are still, however, some parts of the country where the importance of education is yet to be understood by the populace, for example, in the Samburu County of northern Kenya, whose population mainly consists of the nomadic pastoralist Samburu community. In such areas, education is often thrown by the wayside as they choose to live according to their traditional custom. Little regard is given to the fact that culture, through practices such as girl-child beading, forced/early marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM), may be detrimental to the development of children in the community. It is therefore no surprise that an assessment by Uwezo Kenya (2013) found that the percentage of 3rd Grade children in Samburu County who can read and understand a 2nd Grade story is only 13%. On the other hand the percentage in the capital’s Nairobi County is 57%. Clearly, something is amiss.Furthermore, due to the nomadic nature of such communities as they move in search of pasture for their livestock, their children discontinue their learning each time the family moves.

In more urban areas, children must struggle with social evils such as drugs and rampant insecurity, which has led to devastating crimes such as the recent gang rape of a girl in 6th Grade by 6 men, which even made international headlines. But chief among all problems that school-going children face is that of lack of funds. Even as the government struggles to make education free and accessible to all, parents also struggle to purchase their children textbooks, uniforms, sanitary pads and other basic items. It is such prohibitive costs that cause many parents to opt not to send their children to school. Such children often end up doing menial labour such as working as farmhands or housemaids, neither of which requires specialized skills.

In stark contrast, Canada, whose educational system is the basis for Kenya’s 8-4-4 educational cycle, has a stellar learning process. In Canada, the average adult can boast of 11.6 years of schooling, compared to Kenya’s 4.2 years. Canada has also taken steps to ensure that education up to the age of 16 is compulsory while Kenya only makes basic education a must.When the 8-4-4 system was first introduced in January 1985, it was aimed at not only preparing students for university, but also providing a vocational educational option for those who could be self-employed, or those who would go into the informal sector. However, in the rush to implement the system, the required standards of infrastructure such as school laboratories were not put into place. The repercussions still make their mark even today, with the system criticized as being largely theory-based, with little opportunity for practical work.

In the contemporary Kenyan society, parents’ involvement in the education of their children is largely limited to contribution of funds, written communication and parent-teacher conferences. Inasmuch as these methods may work in middle and upper-class Kenyan families (whose children mainly attend high-cost private schools), they do not necessarily apply among those in the lower class (whose children attend government-funded schools). Most parents in the latter socio-economic group are so deeply steeped in poverty that they are largely unable to offer any form of financial aid towards the school. Illiteracy is also rife, disabling communication between the teacher and parents. More often than not, the parent just sends the child to school, assuming that since primary school education is free, the school shall provide for all the needs of the child. Parent-teacher meetings are seldom heard of because the parents are so busy trying to eke out a living that they simply have no time to visit the school.

The efforts of the government and non-profit agencies so far cannot go unmentioned. These include funding the building and refurbishment of several schools in the country and the advocating for and passing of relevant legislation so as to bolster education in the country. Nevertheless, such initiatives are often met with political, social and economical obstacles that prevent them from coming to fruition. A victim of such obstacles is the ambitious National Free Milk Programme in public primary schools (popularly known as Nyayo Milk) launchedin 1979, which crumbled due to lack of funding and logistical support.

All the same, most of these initiatives only serve to exacerbate the challenges of socio-economic division and access to education. According to Serpell (1993), a highly centralized governance and educational system results in schooling patterns which seem to favour economically and culturally dominant groups. This is evident in Kenya, where bad policy implementation, high poverty levels and imbalanced distribution of resources are all major factors in defining the country’s educational system.

Thus, in order to provide a long-term solution for parental involvement (or lack thereof) in marginalized and rural areas, we must come up with localized and sustainable problem-solving methodologies.

For instance, in a local area plagued by violence and sexual abuse against children, the government (through the local authority) could set up a ‘merry-go-round’ system among parents, in which one parent escorts children to school in the morning and back home in the evening. The next day, a different parent follows suit and so on. In addition to improving the safety of the children, such an arrangement also frees the parent to work longer hours during the day. Although the parents’ involvement is indirect, it is nonetheless monumental in provision of education without fear for their children, as their security to and from school is guaranteed.

Sensitization and dissemination of information concerning education should be taken to the grassroots, as that is where the problem lies. Parents countrywide must be made aware of the vital importance of quality education, and the prosperity it can bring to society. Also, awareness should be created concerning traditional cultural practices which hinder the development of children, in terms of not only their education but also their health. Such include early marriages and pregnancies, and the abortions that may result.

Forums and door-to-door campaigns should also be launched to tackle the problem of parental compliance with educational policies and to gain a deeper comprehension of the challenges parents face. This promotes the exchange of ideas between educators and parents, both of whom are major stakeholders in education. For example, parents often cite uniforms as an unnecessary cost towards their children’s education. Such forums could see the implementation of a flexible policy where uniforms could be made optional so as to cushion parents from the added financial burden.

Another way for the government to increase parental involvement is by offering economically challenged parents some form of employment within the school. Unorthodox as it may seem, such an approach will have the effect of providing the parents with a solid job and a constant salary, which by extension will ensure that the child’s education goes undisrupted. For example, parents who lack specialized skills may be employed as groundskeepers, night guards or even as cleaners. In addition, the government can source farm produce to feed the pupils from the farmers who live in the school’s vicinity.

Non-profit organizations also have a crucial role to play. They can work in tandem with the government and foreign donor agencies to put up educational centres in areas of hardship. Such centres have been shown to be of great benefit to the children, their parents and the community as a whole. A case in point is that of the Aga Khan Foundation’s Madrasa Pre-School Programme in East Africa. This programme offers holistic early childhood education to Muslims. Since its implementation in 1986, the programme (through the Madrasa Resource Centres) has touched the lives nearly 70,000 children through the establishment of 203 pre-schools. Furthermore, it has trained 4500 pre-school teachers, all of whom come from the surrounding community and are trained on-site or at the Centres. Such programmes are a unique method of involving parents in a community by training them to become educators of their own children. In this way, disadvantaged communities are empowered to overcome their difficulties by establishing, running and sustaining quality educational facilities for their children.

As an emerging third world country, Kenya is determined to improve the quality of life for all her citizens. With over US$ 1 billion of the National Budget for2013/2014 earmarked for education and technology, I can safely say that Kenya has taken the first step to actualizing an efficient educational system that can be the foundation for the Kenya Vision 2030. As a new government and devolved governance structures come into play, I believe Kenya is now well-placed to turn the education sector around. Change is now on the horizon. It is time for Kenya to stand up and be counted.


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