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Flaws in free primary education policy hurt orphans and vulnerable children

Written by Betty Oyugi
The introduction of free primary education (FPE) in 2002 opened doors for millions of Kenyan children who would otherwise be out of school, but it may fail to address the special needs of orphaned and vulnerable children.
All over the country, teachers report that their classrooms are congested and they cannot give individual attention to children with special needs.

“FPE is a good thing for Kenyans but better targeting is required especially where there is a special need,” notes Grace Bunyi, the chair of Women Education Researchers of Kenya (WERK).

Bunyi’s concern is echoed by a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report, released in March 2005 titled Challenges of Implementing Free Primary Education in Kenya: Experiences from the districts which recommended among other things, that the government should provide infrastructure for children with special needs.

It notes that; the systems of school data collection should be improved to capture the information on children with special learning needs.

Jackson Ng’anga is an orphan and attends Ruiru Primary School. his greatest fear is that once he finishes primary school, he might not make it to secondary school not because of his performance but because of money.

He lost his parents in a span of one year and lives with an aunt who does casual jobs in the coffee plantations to make ends meet.

Ng’anga, who is 14 years old, has a dream of becoming an engineer later in life. He is grateful to his neighbours who have been very supportive. One has even bought him school uniform when the last one he had got worn out.

A research carried out by WERK in 16 formal primary schools and two non formal schools in Ruiru and Embakasi divisions on the outskirts of Nairobi reveals that some of the challenges of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) include the lack of individual attention for pupils, some of whom were previously out of school and therefore in need of more attention.

The research established that the FPE was especially timely for children living in the slums, orphans and street children.

It also assessed that over enrolment has also given an overwhelming workload for teachers since there is shortage of teachers, and in particular, special needs teachers.

Another notable finding was that due to inadequate funding, the special needs facilities such as classrooms, appropriate toilets and physiotherapy rooms are under-funded.

“In one of the special units visited, the pupils have been assigned a class in the school store where the building materials are kept,” the research quotes.

A total of Ksh 9.85 billion was mobilised to support FPE programme in the financial year 2003/2004. This was to cater for the following areas: instructional materials (Ksh 1.04 billion), water and sanitation (Ksh 900 million), a disability friendly learning environment (Ksh 180 million), science kits (Ksh 281 million) and specific learner needs in special education schools (Ksh 134 million).

Grace Bunyi, also adds that children with special needs are teased at school and are likely to have problems with discipline at school.

A teacher interviewed in Ruiru Division, gave an account of an orphan girl who would miss class every month. Each time she was asked why, she would say she was sick.

“After much coaxing, she opened up and said that she lived with her guardian who was poor. So whenever she had her menstrual periods, she would be asked to use rags made from old blankets. The rags were quite uncomfortable for her in school and so she would prefer staying at home until she was through with her periods.”

The most troubled group are the orphans because they have little choice about whether they can get an education or stay home and take care of their siblings.

Mr. Danson Muchiri, head teacher at Rwera Primary School in Ruiru says that the school has a large number of orphaned and vulnerable children and is quick to commend the community around the school for the overwhelming support they give the children.

“There was a time when 25 children dropped out of school but the community brought them back to school. However, this is not good for continuity purposes as it greatly affects their performance in class and their level of understanding,” Mr. Muchiri quips.

Another teacher at Ruiru Primary School, Ms. Florence Thuo narrates that there are only two teachers at the school who can attend to children with the special needs, especially those who need guidance and counselling.

“The biggest challenge for teachers here is how to deal with chronic absenteeism, withdrawal from school and pupil motivation especially doing follow-up on their homework,” she emphasises.

Ruiru Primary school is located amongst factories and expansive coffee plantations, a factor contributing to poor school attendance because children can be found selling their labour in these places. Prostitution is also rife in the area, and young girls are especially vulnerable.

There is uncertainty on continuity with many Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) wondering whether they will get financial support for their high school education. This is demoralising many of them who want to further their education.

As a result of these challenges faced, one informant in the research called FPE, ‘Elimu bure’ (education of no value) instead of ‘Elimu ya bure’ (Free Primary Education).

These loopholes need to be addressed urgently if Universal Primary Education (UPE) is to be achieved by 2015. It also goes in line with goal two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which is to achieve Universal Primary Education.

The UNESCO report quotes that the government as a matter of priority develop the FPE policy that clearly defines what it is all about.

According to the report; FPE should be implemented within the broader Education For All (EFA) framework, which provides for a holistic approach to education provision.

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