The homestretch: the decade of action for quality education

January 24, 2020

It is the last few weeks of January as I make my way to work through Kibera, one of Nairobi’s biggest slums. I see children struggling to make their way through the already congested and muddy paths in an attempt to get to school. As the cool breeze hits me, I cannot imagine myself walking in the rain, let alone the flooded footpaths. A handful of the ‘privileged’ children are wearing gumboots that somewhat give them cover from the ravages of the rain and muck, whilst the majority wear light canvas shoes. I can only imagine what happens by the time they get to school – wet, soiled, cold – and the effect that has on their school day. Regardless, they plow on doggedly, not giving up to the rains, in a bid to secure their future. 

Unfortunately, this is the reality for children in informal settlements that have to go through this in their quest for education, with the hope it will brighten their future and that of their families and communities.

2020 marks the beginning of an important decade for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 4, as nations continue their quest to ‘ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning‘. According to a 2016 UNICEF annual report, the number of out of school children in Kenya was about 1.2 million. Ten years from now, the country will evaluate the progress made on each indicator and target of SDG 4. Are we on the right path? Will all boys and girls have an equal chance to complete primary and secondary school by 2030? Will gender disparities in education be eliminated? Will we have ensured equal access to children from vulnerable communities at all education levels? 

Africa is increasingly urbanizing with research showing that the number of people living in urban areas will exceed those in rural areas in the next five decades. With this expectation and the upgrading of towns to cities, we are likely to see a spike in the demand for education. Informal settlement areas have fewer public schools and are characterized by other challenges including the lack of land which may hinder the expansion of the few existing public schools. A study by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) showed that in Kenya about 60% of children living in two informal settlement areas attend Low- Fee Private Schools. These schools are profit-driven with minimal focus on the quality of education being offered and are owned by individuals and organizations. Despite this, we cannot dismiss the fact that they fill a large gap in the provision of education to children from poor backgrounds.   

Children from low-income settlements, arid and semi-arid areas, and especially girls from these backgrounds, have a lower chance of attending school. It is therefore paramount that the government makes it a priority to ensure there are systems in place that promote access to quality education for children from these key backgrounds. 

Collaboration among government and civil society organizations plays a key role in enhancing and improving access to quality education for those left behind. Since 2016 the Urban Education project at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) has brought together key actors working on education in informal settlements in the capital cities of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. This has been with the aim of creating a collective voice for evidence-based advocacy in improving quality education for children living in these areas. The project team deliberately engages different policy stakeholders to tease out contextual issues regarding education for the urban poor in the three East African countries.  

However, the paucity of segregated data remains a challenge in the development of targeted policies addressing key challenges for quality education for children living in informal settlements. For this reason, the project continues generating evidence on schooling patterns for children living in urban informal areas, hoping that the evidence ignites high-level, as well as grassroots stakeholder discussions on the provision of quality education for children from low socio-economic backgrounds.

As we celebrate the International Day of Education, the words of Nelson Mandela resound ever louder: ‘No country can develop unless its citizens are educated.’ The right to quality basic education is enshrined in constitutions and international treaties to ensure it is protected. As the urban population grows, there is a need to address the inequalities in education as a pathway to development and promoting innovative solutions to community-specific challenges.