This model of ‘free education’ isn’t really free

Claims of free education are the hallmark of most governments and Kenya is no exception.

Thursday March 10 2016

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Lofty claims of free education are the hallmark of most governments and Kenya is no exception.

Waiving fees does not enable a child to read, learn, and become educated, a fact made amply clear from the recently released data that indicates that three out of five children enter but never graduate from school.

School is not about fees. School is about a uniform that is ironed and clean.

A lunch box that has an interesting snack, like the other children who can pay, a box of crayons that is not a hand-me-down, a new pair of sneakers to mark selection in the school team, and the ability to go on a field trip like the others. And yes, all this does not come free.

School is also about being helped by teachers when your grades are falling behind and getting extra tuition when exams are near - facilities that cost a lot of money and are not part of any fees that are calculated by schools.


These are the factors that make children drop out: the inability to cope with everything that makes school except the minor fact that the fee is waived.

Why are the children who are allowed “free education” not admitted to premier schools?

Is it so difficult to reserve 20 per cent of seats in premium schools for children who cannot pay?

The expenses of their schooling to be borne by the rest who can pay?

Imagine a class of 40 where the expense of 10 children is built into the cost of educating the 30 whose parents can afford an education. 

This does not mean fees alone; it means clothes, snacks, books, outings, music classes, sports, library, and help when required.

Chances are that any such move would meet stiff resistance from parents and school authorities alike.

The common argument would be: How will such children manage to overcome the large social and financial gap that will exists between the privileged and the have-nots?

I was a witness to one such situation in New Delhi, where 25 per cent reservation for the Economically Weaker Section is mandatory in all private schools (usually owned by trusts or individuals to impart quality education to the elite).

The occasion was the birthday party of a friend’s son. The children, and also their parents, could be easily identified.

The children because of their clothing and the parents due to their hesitation in mingling with the apparently affluent set.

One hour into the party, the children were rolling around and running after one another, mindlessly unaware of any social stratification, whereas the parents stayed in separate groups, making stilted conversation at best.


The concept is not without drawbacks and challenges. It needs immense maturity on the part of teachers, parents, and authorities to ensure integration.

Frequent counselling in the early years, special classes to bring the children at par with their more privileged peers, and most importantly, the desire to make it work.

A direct link between lack of education and crime is too well established to be debated.

Education is linked to lower rates of incarceration and arrests. Reforming the school climate and providing an education that retains students in school is key to keeping them engaged.

This invariably leads them to a career path and employment and away from anti-social behaviour. This results in substantial savings for the government too.

Do you think children who are admitted to a full feature “free” school will drop out?

Also a word for those who will be aghast at the thought of paying for someone else’s child: think of it as a future investment for your own offspring - the children you contribute in educating will all join the workforce and become cultured law-abiding citizens.

They will not lie in wait to snatch what your child has.

The writer is head of digital, Nation Media Group. [email protected]