Access to quality education in urban informal settlements remains a far-away dream

By Johnstone Shisanya, ESP Programme Manager

Children in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, a Nairobi informal settlement area, wake up each day hoping for an education and a fair chance to fight for a better future. For many however, quality education remains a mirage.

“If I was able to go to school, I would wear a blue shirt, a grey sweater and black shoes,” John Mwangi, a 12-year-old orphan whose dream is to become a pilot, says. He lives with his grandmother, who is poor and can’t afford to pay school fees. He has never attended school.

Nairobi has 225 public primary schools and Early Childhood Education (ECD) centres. Mukuru has nine – characterized by overcrowded classrooms in low-fee, Alternative Provision of Basic Education and Training (APBET) schools.

APBETs, or Low-Fee Private schools, have mushroomed in urban informal settlement areas to fill the shortage of public schools. Nairobi alone has 300 of them. Many are unregulated and often unsafe. In 2019, a classroom collapsed in the Dagoretti area, killing seven pupils, and injured 57 others, prompting a nationwide crackdown on APBETS.

“When I grow up, I would like to be a doctor,” says Aziza Ong’wasia a standard 6 student in an APBET school. Her parents tried to enroll her in a public school, but she was locked out as she could not meet the set requirements which included having a birth certificate and school fees.

The right to education is both an essential right for empowerment and a necessity to the realization of all other human rights. This is established in many legal human rights instruments and policies that include: the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the UNESCO covenant against Discrimination in Education (1960, CADE), Covenant on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD, 2006) article 24 the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the SDGs, no.4.

“In our work at EACHRights, we continue to engage policy makers at the Ministry of Education (MoE) on many matters around equitable education. Progress has been realised in terms of government accepting and acknowledging low paying schools in the informal settlements. The passing of Alternative Provision of Basic Education and Training guidelines 2021 to regulate registrations and standards of schools in the informal settlements is a success that we have influenced since 2017. However, there should be regular inspection of these schools to ensure they adhere to quality education standards,” says Claude Kandem, a Programme Officer.

Public private partnerships are a potential solution. Ruben Centre Primary school in Mukuru is a public school with over 2,800 children. The school is under the management of the Christian Brothers and promotes equity and social justice. The leadership is gender balanced and has over 60 trained teachers paid by the government and more paid by the Christian Brothers.

This partnership saw structures upgraded from temporary iron sheets to permanent storey buildings that are safe for learning. They manage to provide lunch for all children, most of whom come from poor households. In 2021, it had a mean score of 250 with its highest student scoring 393 marks out of the possible 500.

EACHRights continues to advocate for state and actors in the education sector to prioritize the development of quality public schools as a public good over privatization of education. This work, as captured in the Nielimishe film, illustrates the plight of poor children like John Mwangi and his friends.

The covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities as many children in these areas were unable to attend online classes. An upsurge in the economic and financial models behind education systems such as Bridge International Academies are not sustainable as they also jeopardize the right to free quality education, infringing on rights of the child. They present a picture of affordable education, yet there are hidden costs. Parents in these informal urban settlements cannot afford to pay.

The government has failed to regulate private actors in the education sector. More public private partnerships would ensure children in these settlement areas have access to quality education to give them a fair chance of competing with others. APBETS need to be inspected often to ensure they adhere to standards set by the Ministry.  

“If they asked for my advice, I would recommend that school and classes should be child friendly. APBETS should be regularly monitored for quality assurance,” says Rose Achala, a teacher in Mukuru.

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