The introduction of free schooling was a godsend, given the high number of pupils who turned up in schools across the country to benefit from the initiative.
This clearly indicated that the education door had previously been shut on many children from poor backgrounds. This was a grave injustice as the right to education is enshrined in our Constitution.
While free school was a milestone of major proportions, it exposed inherent institutional weaknesses in the education system. The resources proved woefully inadequate to cope with the influx of pupils in primary schools. Classrooms overflowed, teachers were stretched to the limit, books as well as other critical materials were far from being sufficient.
There were real concerns about the standards being substantially compromised. As the programme was implemented, it also became increasingly clear that the funds that were being allocated for each student were not enough.
There have been attempts to address these challenges and although notable progress has been made, a lot remains to be done.
In addition to the above challenges, it is now emerging that there is a yawning need for a mechanism to ensure that pupils who benefit from free primary school go all the way to college and university to learn skills and trades.
The reason for the introduction of free education was to spread opportunities and afford all and sundry the best shot at life. With some respectable level of education, young people will have vastly improved chances of getting a job, building exciting careers, and generally doing something meaningful with their lives.
Others will start businesses and make significant contributions to the advancement of the society.
It goes without saying that an educated population is central to faster development. Industries will have a deep pool of talent to draw from and innovation will go a notch higher.
REDUCING MATERNAL DEATHS
Research shows that women who attain a college certificate are likely to give birth in hospitals, reducing maternal deaths and child mortality. They are also able to plan and feed their families well, resulting in a healthy population. These are some of the key indicators of a progressive nation.
It is, therefore, alarming that as high as 58 per cent of the beneficiaries of free primary education do not sit the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education as they leave midstream. This ought to jolt us into action. We have to go back to the drawing board and urgently seek a solution.
If these pupils will continue to fall through the gaps in the education system, then the vast amount of resources being spent on free education would have been flushed down the drain. This startling state of affairs must be arrested immediately.
As these seemingly daunting challenges come up, it is becoming clear that the decision to introduce the system was even bolder than initially thought. This means that equally bold measures have to be instituted to sustain this noble programme.
I believe that the policy-makers in the Kibaki administration, which introduced the system, tried their best to think through all the facets, including the potential land mines of such an ambitiously grand plan. But even the best-laid plans can go awry. Some of the problems we are witnessing may not have been anticipated.
So, what is the way forward? All stakeholders are in agreement that free schooling holds the key to boosting livelihoods and thus expunging widespread poverty from our midst.
Therefore, it behoves all the players to find answers to the questions regarding the workability and sustainability of free schooling.
Some of the things needed to fix the current woes are obvious. The physical and human resources must be made adequate and a mechanism devised so that the chain of the pupils’ education is not broken until they can get to a career path that earns them an income.
For this to happen we ought to ensure that students at the secondary level continue with their education by providing them with financial and material support. The introduction of free primary education showed that poverty was one of the foremost reasons that held pupils from accessing education.
Students from poor backgrounds need to be assisted every step of the way until they clinch a certificate, diploma, or degree. It is only by doing this that our efforts will pay off.
Dr Gicharu is the founder and chairman of Mount Kenya University