Sending Children to Private Schools: The Parental Dilemma

February 2, 2015

Parents in Kenya have been in a dilemma since the release of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) results for their children who wrote the exam in 2014. It was the expectation of every parent that when the results were released by the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC), they would be able to share in the joy of their children who passed the examination. Parents would also be able to share in their children’s aspirations for higher education attainment—for the high achievers who would be admitted into the national schools of their choice, and proceed to receive quality secondary education. Parents have not been a happy lot since the release of the exams.

Many parents have complained that their children were not admitted to the secondary schools of their choice. Such parents had children attending private primary schools all over the country.

This brings us back to the debate on the private versus public education. Kenya reintroduced free primary education in 2003. Researchers have developed a consensus that private schools fill the gaps that otherwise cannot be filled by public schools due to lack of access and sufficient public funding. They offer additional opportunities for children to access basic education, particularly those children who would otherwise miss out on such opportunities because of an overburdened public education system. According to APHRC, 47 percent of children in seven urban informal settlements across Kenya were enrolled in non-government schools in 2012. This means that only about 53 percent were attending government schools. If this statistic is to go by, a selection process into public secondary school ignores the 47 percent, and lots of children are locked out of achieving their aspirations and lifelong goals.

We also need to remember that not all private schools are big, expensive, and attended by the children of wealthy or middle class parents who can afford a private secondary education. For example, private schools that serve children in the urban informal settlements are for profit, locally owned, and charge low fees that target pupils in poor households. The existence of these schools fill an important gap among poor households by meeting the need for accessible, low cost primary school education.

However, the private schools in the urban informal settlements face challenges that include poor school attendance among both pupils and teachers, a large proportion of unskilled teachers, low teacher salaries, high number of parents who are unable to pay school fees, poor infrastructure. A high proportion (89%) of them are not registered with the Kenya Ministry of Education, and the Teacher Service Commission has no jurisdiction over regulating the credentials or quality of teachers such schools employ.

Children who attend low cost private schools already have enough challenges; they have struggled to attain primary education. If they are classified simply as children from private schools, they face a double disadvantage. By and large, they attend schools that experience a myriad of challenges, and they are denied a good education in secondary school by not being admitted to schools of their choice. The education sector needs to be sensitive to the plight of such children, otherwise we are faced with a generation of children “left behind.”

My suggestions to the Ministry of Education (MOE) would be talk to all the stakeholders in the education sector on this sensitive matter, in order to get a way forward that will be beneficial to all the children in this country. A dialogue with parents would be essential as they are part of the financiers of their children’s education. In the long term, we need to find lasting solutions to the problems that ail the public education system. It is only by doing do that MOE can restore public confidence of all the stakeholders in the management and provision of public education. There are times when top-down measures yield very little, yet a consultative, bottom-up approach would be more important in finding a long lasting solution to the current and future education dilemmas.