Kenya’s education sector has experienced rapid growth over the last decade.
Enrollment in primary schools, for example, jumped from 6.3 million in 2002 to 9.3 million in 2010, largely as a result of the free schooling programme introduced by the first Kibaki administration.
The new Constitution consolidates these gains by providing for free and compulsory basic education.
It also specifies that pre-primary education, village polytechnics, home craft centres and childcare facilities will be devolved to county governments.
Although the management of the other levels of education will remain centralised, they too will nevertheless be affected by the expected transition.
Besides the new constitution, Kenya has in recent years taken a number of measures to decentralise education services.
These have included the transfer of capitation funds to primary schools to purchase instructional materials and the subsidised secondary education programme, aimed at making secondary education accessible and affordable.
Other decentralised secondary education programmes include bursary support, whose management was decentralised in 2003/4 to Constituency Bursary Committees.
Decentralisation is, however, in itself not a panacea to the problems that have bedevilled Kenya’s education system. Some of the main challenges are low access to education, especially at higher levels, lack of equity in access, low quality and high costs of schooling.
Decentralisation also introduces new challenges related to the need to redefine roles of stakeholders. The country is therefore likely to face more daunting challenges in education access, quality and cost. What are these challenges and how can they be mitigated as we move into the new era?
Quality is one of the biggest challenges, even under the current system, and is likely to be more so in the new era. One of the observations from international experience is that, in decentralised systems, the governors or the individuals in charge may not necessarily prioritise quality of education.
How, then, do stakeholders ensure that quality is not compromised in a decentralised system? A common practice is to establish strong national and decentralised quality assurance and standards services.
The national government should establish and monitor quality standards, including for the devolved functions.
As provided in Article 187 of the Constitution, authority should be transferred to individual counties or schools only after they meet specific tests of readiness, such as financial participation, training, or community involvement.
In addition, international evidence indicates that more transparent and accountable systems of education are likely to perform better. Quality can therefore be enhanced by strengthening the existing accountability relationships. In Kenya, it will be important for the counties to be made accountable for their actions to the other stakeholders, including the communities.
In this respect, a strong system of informing parents and other stakeholders how schools perform is critical. Other factors that have been found to be important for ensuring quality are:
(i) devolution of authority, rather than delegation, with experiences across the globe indicating superior performance of models that transfer ownership and authority compared to “shared responsibility models”, and
(ii) provision of specific tools to the central ministry or agency in charge of education to guard against the development of significant regional differences in educational quality.
Some of the tools commonly used across the globe to ensure uniformity following decentralisation include: use of nationally defined targets as in the US and overseeing the development of curricula at the centre rather than at the devolved units to avoid development of different programmes, as happened in various Latin American nations.
Low access rates especially at the post-primary level and inequitable access rates across all levels of education present a key challenge. In Kenya, the post-primary transition rate is only about 60 per cent.
Devolution and regional differences
Devolution in itself is not necessarily a cure for these rates and lack of equity in access. In fact, devolution may exacerbate the inequalities if keen attention is not paid to regional differences.
The experiences of other countries, including Argentina and Colombia, indicate that a devolution process that decentralises to all regions at once is difficult to execute successfully if there are inadequate capacities.
This observation is particularly relevant for Kenya, which has regional inequalities in form of distribution of human and material resources and the existence of both weak and strong regional educational infrastructures.
A country worth emulating in this regard is Spain, which adopted fast, medium, and slow tracks in its decentralisation programme. The transfer of authority from the national government was linked to the meeting (by devolved units) of specific criteria.
One of the advantages of this incremental approach is that regions on the slower tracks learn valuable lessons from the experiences of those on the fast track. In order to ensure equitable access rates, it is important to develop simple and clear decentralisation plans that are linked to national development plans.
The national government, apart from using other tools, should implement redistribution of resources based on population and regional wealth, as in Colombia.
Another key aspect of devolution is that it is bound to affect the structure and organisation of government in relation to the management of education and its related services.
There are bound to be structural and organisational design challenges as Kenya implements the Constitution. In education, for instance, the country will require a well thought out transition from the former system of provincial administration, which includes Provincial Education Officers.
There are no easy solutions to the puzzle of how best to manage the transition with respect to reorganisation of government. One of the most important processes will be for the key actors to facilitate a process that encourages transparent and extensive consultations across all stakeholders. This will avoid national conflict and yield better results.
Decentralisation is usually associated with reform of institutions which occasionally results in coordination challenges and “turf wars” as roles and responsibilities of players change.
An important starting point to promote coordination and avert conflict is to develop a common vision of reform among potentially competing centres of power. A common vision is essential if collaboration, rather than conflict, is to become the dominant force driving actions.
To this end, it is important to initiate an open flow of ideas and information among key actors, including the ministry in charge of education, education sector agencies, county leaders, political parties, the private sector and communities.
Effective and conflict-free reforms are also made possible by developing clear policies and well-designed legal and/or administrative instruments that delineate the division of responsibility and authority between the centre and the devolved units.
It is important to clarify the assignment of functions, simplify new processes and structures, and provide mechanisms to coordinate and foster a shared understanding of reform at different levels of government, as well as to adjudicate disagreements.
Finally, both the national and county governments will need to prepare capacity development plans in preparation for their new roles.
Some of the new or expanded roles of the national government include setting and monitoring standards, reworking the financial and data management systems, and the design and implementation of an equalisation scheme.
Ms Onsomu and Mr Munga are policy analysts at KIPPRA.