Last week, a newspaper ran a story about a boy in Kakamega who offered to sell his kidney in order to pay his secondary school fees.
The largely casual reaction regarded this news as an extreme response from an unduly distressed minor, who didn’t fully understand the implications of surrendering a kidney in exchange for money.
Added to that, the implied price for the kidney was hardly enough to fund secondary education for four years at the rates recommended by the Ministry of Education.
There are interesting lessons for both education policy and national health policy here. To begin with, the story suggests that Kenya’s stated policy of twelve years of basic education for every child remains policy on paper only, because many students still cannot find classroom spaces.
In a manner of speaking, the policy's goal is not achieved when students in the top 20 per cent of the cohort are unable to claim spaces for which they are qualified and which have been assigned to them.
It helps nobody to maintain the mantra of free secondary education when this situation signals it is falling short. That a student is prepared to risk his health in order to continue with secondary education itself shows how high the demand for education at this level still is.
This pupil’s situation also illustrates the legacy of policy bias towards residential schooling in Kenya. The common fallacy is that residential or boarding schools are better for educating pupils in their teenage years because of closer supervision by teachers, added to the confinement within high school premises.
This idea is reinforced by examination results that usually show some of the best-performing high schools in Kenya to be residential schools.
What most miss is that exam results do not reflect the superiority of residential education. Rather, they reflect the fact that both colonial and post-colonial policy preserved the place of some of these schools in admitting the best students after primary school.
As a consequence of this, the phony policy of trying to integrate Kenyan students across the country results in students from poorer households losing their high school places because they are invariably admitted to schools that their parents and guardians are unable to pay for.
That is the unintended, though predictable, result of the narrative that forced integration at secondary school level will result in less prejudice among groups and less political rancour.
Like businesses, most people learn closer to home and still retain balance and respect among different people. This artificial attempt to force integration through education is definitely well-intended, but is a typical example of a solution looking for a problem.
Given the number of students who are unable to find secondary school places to begin with, it is evident that the solutions to the universal secondary school education problem lie in reducing the share of students attending residential schools.
Continuing to believe that residential secondary schools are superior for educating pupils with the added social value of ensuring integration is ideology trumping facts.
LETTING CHILDREN DROP OUT
Nevertheless, the most uncomfortable part about a 14 year old being willing to sell a kidney to fund his education comes from seeing what government is buying at the same time.
The week after the kidney offer went public, the government announced it was about to commence the pilot phase of its schools digitisation project.
So the government priority in education is to push laptops and tablets to pupils for an initial Sh17 billion on one hand, while on the other hand, individual students who cannot fund secondary education are trading kidneys. I must ask how someone thinks these to be sensible trade-offs for education policy.
This is not the first time a student has communicated the desire to trade a kidney or other organ in exchange for money to further education. It’s a signal of poverty and desperation that may not be directly connected to education policy.
It still illustrates, however, that the public funding of education in Kenya fails to achieve maximum effect because of its disjointed nature.
All of which in turn shows the folly of letting children drop out of school, only to provide funding under Uwezo Fund and Youth Fund for ill-educated citizens to start enterprises.
Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame