Free Primary Education in Kenya- Boom or Bust?

The population in Kenya is classified in two main categories, urban and rural. The urban population is about 35% of which nearly 30% are very poor. In the rural areas, nearly 50% of the population lives in extreme abject poverty.   For kenya to compete globally or even solve its poverty issues, it must put forward an educational plan to ensure that some or all the needs of different sectors are met. The awareness of importance of education in eliminating poverty, disease and ignorance have led to many polices in the past by the Kenyan government- and most of these have met with partial success only (Yetu 2003).

To overcome the economic and educational problems, kenya facies has an uphill battle. Schooling in most parts of Africa is not free and many children never get the opportunity to attend school. Now Kenya is taking a proactive step to correct this major social problem, which has always been a limitation in the production of developed labor.   Public schooling in Kenya has a format of primary school (8 years), secondary school (4 years) and university education (4 years). This centralized educational system was adopted from the British and has been widely used all over the country. While english is the teaching language at most levels of education, the indigenous language is taught from ages 5-7 (Kess 2005).

Unlike western countries, children in kenya are not required by law to attend schools. Even though many kenyan parents see education as a better life for ther children, this opportunity is not always available for various reasons. For decades, all Kenyan children have had to pay fees to attend school. While the sum is not exorbitant, many families are simply too poor. The majority still have difficulty paying rent and buying food (Abagi 1997).

In the early 70s and 80s, it became apparent the education for Kenyans was required for both short and long term success. If Kenya was going to compete on the global market, it would need to start educating its children. These forums did acknowledge that acquiring a decent education would improve the ability of Kenyans to conserve and make use of the environment for industrious gains and sustainable income. Secondly, developing quality personnel was fundamental to achieving national objectives for business success. Universal free education would also make sure of fair access to all children regardless of their handicap, ethnicity or culture. And finally education was important for the development and protection of any democratic institution and human rights (Abagi, 1999, 2000).

In 2000, the government started to make educational policies aimed at closing the gaps between regions, tribes and economic classes and various bills were enacted.   The first was the Children’s Bill in 2002 which stipulated that all children had a right to primary education and subjected parents to a fine if this law was disrespected. The second was the School Feeding program which assisted poverty stricken children in rural areas. The third was the Textbook Fund which paid for educational text materials. The fourth was the Bursary Fund which assisted poor students meet the costs of secondary school. Even though these initiatives did help a few children, Kenya is a country which is beset with corruption, tribal favoritism and uneducated officials in the government. The majority of children who deserve the funds never get them. And the disparity continues (Yetu E, 2003 & 2003a; Kess 2005).

The government of Kenya has always believed in absolute control of the education system but with many failed social polices lack of teachers and school facilities; it was time for a change. Many educational experts believed that by removing fees, the government would be able to reverse the declining enrolment rates in Kenya and the stop the nearly 50% drop out rate of children who did actually go to school. In 2002, the UNs Millennium Summit set a strategy of starting a program of free schooling for all children in Kenya by 2015. This positive initiative gave the Kenya government incentive to take a giant step forward towards reaching that target (UNESCO 2003; Republic of Kenya, 2003).

In 2003, the Government abolished all fees in the country’s public primary schools. This was excellent news because it was widely believed that the majority of children in Kenya did not go to school because their families simply did not have the money. Overnight, nearly a million new students came to school the following day. Today, primary education is   provided free of charge and is the   phase of Kenya’s formal education system. This free educational program starts at the age of 6 and continues for 8 years. The main purpose of primary education is to prepare children to participate fully in the social, political and economic well being of the country. Besides the free education, there has been a new currciulum developed to help the children better adapt to life after school (MOE 2003).  

However, the success of this program is not guaranteed. There are still remaining more than a million children in urban slums who are still not enrolled in schools. The country needs money to pay the teachers; there are not enough textbooks, not enough space in schools, the infrastructure in the majority of schools is falling apart and not safe. Many of the schools do not even have the necessary sanitation facilities which are needed by the girls.   The quality of primary education in schools with shortage of teachers and limited textbooks is well known. In many schools, the teacher-pupil ratio is very high, thus making quality teaching difficult.   The scrutiny and regulation of the implementation of free primary education is difficult because district officials are not even able to reach many rural schools. Besides access, the schools also have no way of forwarding reports back to the Ministry. The lack of transport and no postal system have left many schools operating without guidelines. And to make matters worse, there are thousands on young Kenyan children on the streets who are orphans/drug addicts and others who have to work for a living (Yetu E 2003a; Kess 2005).  

Today, the government realizes that they must combine with Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to help deliver quality educational services all over the country. There are several organizations that play a central role in financing primary education in Kenya. In particular, international (UNESCO, CIDA) and religious organizations that sponsor schools are an important source of finance for the schools. There are also NGOs that actively provide funds for the policy advocacy, review, development of schools and special programs such us education of the girl-child, training and in-servicing of school heads and teachers. The approaches, concentration, focus and volume of support varies from one organization to another. Private sponsors of education have also set up their own private schools, many which are out of reach for the average Kenyan. National Charitable organizations (Kenya Charity Sweepstake, Lions club, Rotary Association, etc) in Kenya do play some role in offering funds but are weary of past Governmental failures (Yetu E, 2003).

International Development partners like the UN, UNESCO, and CIDA do compliment the Government’s effort in improving education all over Africa. They do help in cost sharing when it comes to education (UNESCO 2003; UNESCO 2006).

The Government and Global Campaign for Education have started to provide textbooks in order to sustain the goals and renovations of existing schools are continuing.   The government is aware that future investments are unnecessary. However, with the current economic crises, government investments are limited (Global Campaign).

The transition from primary to secondary education for all Kenyan children is not that simple. How much can one go ahead in life with only primary education? And secondary education is still not free!  

While it is nice to teach students about innovation and technology, Kenyan children also have to learn about HIV and AIDS. This disease is rampant in Kenya and with no cure in sight; the future is bleak for millions who are infected. It is important to teach these young people and equip them with survival knowledge and skills to lead a healthy lifestyle. The government has combined its effort with Undugu Society to strengthen high teaching schools and will include such teaching as a part of educational program.  

It is hope that the implementation of HIV education will also benefit parents and family members (Maticka-Tyndale et al 2005).

The   HYPERLINK “” \t “_blank” Undugu Society of Kenya (USK) founded over thirty years ago continues to provide much assistance to Kenya’s disadvantaged youth and vulnerable children. Because of the extreme poverty, many youths end up on the streets, where drugs, crime and prostitution are common. USK has provided better education opportunities to these children and has a strong vote in the legislature (Voice for the Voiceless).

Although computers were introduced in the school system in 1998, there is little emphasis on its use as an instructional strategy. This scenario is unfortunate since computers can make a big impact in a school system that is devoid of text books. Other problems include lack of government funding to pay for software and equipment, power loss is common, internet connections are expensive, there is poor infrastructure, no telephone lines, lack of teachers and low awareness (Yetu E, 2003a; Kess 2005).  

There is absolutely no doubt that the Kenyan Government needs a working partnership on financing the educational needs of its population. The schooling system in Kenya is beset with problems from inadequate access, inequity, low quality and continuing poverty

There is strong public support for free basic education, but this can only be satisfied by the increased participation of the private sector in the provision and expansion of education at all levels. Encouraging investments from the private sector will be vital if Kenya wants to sustain expansion of its current educational system. And with the government constantly occupied by corruption and failed polices, it will have to provide the private sector with some type of guarantee. With today’s global economic problems, all private sector will think twice before investing.

However, after all this debate, one point appears to be missed. There is also evidence that not all Kenyan children drop of or stay away from school for economic reasons. We in North America have had the luxury of free education at some levels and yet there are countless students who either fail or simply are not interested in school. So in the end, free education is not the panacea to all the troubles in our complex world.


Abagi, O et. al. 2000, Implementing the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Education System of Kenya (The Koech Report): Realities, Challenges and Prospects, Nairobi, Institute of Policy Analysis SR No. 03/2000.

Abagi, O. 1999, Education for the Next Millennium in P. Kimuyu, M. Wagacha and O. Abagi (eds.) Kenya’s Strategic Policies for the 21st. Century: Macro and Sectoral Choices, Nairobi, Institute of Policy Analysis & Research, 1999.

Abagi, O.1997, Public and Private Investment in Primary Education in Kenya: An Agenda for Action, Nairobi, Institute of Policy Analysis & Research.

Global Campaign for Education.  


Kess P (2005). Delivering Quality Education and training to all Kenyans. Kenya Education Sector Support Program 2005.    “”

 “” Maticka-Tyndale E,    “” Gallant M,    “” Brouillard-Coyle C,    “” Holland D,    “” Metcalfe K,    “” Wildish J,    “” Gichuru M. The sexual scripts of Kenyan young people and HIV prevention.  

Ministry of Education Science and Technology, 2003, Free Primary Education: Every Child in School. Nairobi.

Republic of Kenya and United Nations, 2003, Millennium Development Goals: Progress Report for Kenya, 2003, Nairobi.

Voice for the Voiceless.    “”

UNESCO (2003).    “”

UNESCO (2006) Impact of Free Primary Education on Early Childhood Development in Kenya N ° 30 / January — February 2006 UNESCO Policy Brief on Early Childhood.

Yetu E (2003). Monitoring of the Free Primary Education and establishing the unit cost of primary education in Kenya. Coalition ingFPE.pdf

Yetu E (2003a) .Commonwealth Education Fund and Elimu Yetu Coalition, 2003, Reform Agenda for Education Sector in Kenya, Nairobi.

Special thanks to Siam for contributing this content.


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