The Economist has a short article on Kenya's Free Primary Education programme this week, pointing out two crucial, ...umm, challenges (back in my development consulting days, I was told that there were no problems, just 'challenges') that it's not free, and that it's also not very educational.
There may be no school fees as such anymore, but there are certainly plenty of other fees - the Economist mentions a 'signing on fee' and an 'admission fee'. I have also heard of 'desk fees', 'motivation fees' for teachers and other similar charges.
What is even more frustrating, the Economist argues, is that even these fees do not really translate into any substance: The article cites Musau Ndunda, the head of the national parents' association who are now suing the education ministry, who said that the government was guilty of "extraordinary doublespeak" when its officials ask why anyone would pay to send their child to school because 'illicit fees are not being spent on better books and facilities but are merely padding the incomes of school administrators, none of whom--as far as he can tell--has been prosecuted.'
FPE does get bums on seats (if, I guess, you paid your 'seat fee'). The Economist cites data that "in the past decade, about four million new pupils entered the classroom. Today, nearly nine out of ten school-age Kenyans under 11 are now in education." However, quantity is not quality. Often this does not result in kids actually receiving an education because of how the public school system is run. Absenteeism amongst teachers is high and on average, pupils receive just a good two hours of instruction per day. Do kids at least get value for (not-official-fee) money during those hours? Probably not, 'only one-third of public-sector teachers scored at least 80 per cent when tested on the curriculum they are meant to teach.'
Are you surprised? Maybe, if you lived under a rock. But otherwise, no. How the FPE system is run is merely a reflection of how the overall system works: little focus on quality, much focus on 'extracurricular income-generating activities' by all players on all level in the system. The low levels of competence amongst teachers themselves are probably a sort of compound interest of a badly run public education system. Of course it does not help that the elected representatives of the people mostly vote for spending more money on themselves rather than on meagre teacher salaries (or healthcare staff salaries, or police salaries). Lousy employment conditions will not attract the smartest, brightest and most committed teachers. If the system is run badly, then allocating more money to it probably will not result in tangible quality improvements either.
And the laptop project fits perfectly into this framework. Making pupils IT savvy, introducing interactive learning technologies, giving them access to vast amounts of digital learning content: a great idea. Does the laptop concept make sense? Not so much. It's been debated up and down and back and forth why not. Most importantly because, with limited resources, it would be infinitely smarter to set up computer labs in each school (assuming you can fix the electricity issue, and train teachers to use those tools, too) instead of planning for one laptop per child. One of the Focus Group (aka Facebook friends) summed it up quite neatly: "The laptop program is as daft as buying every child in school a car instead of buying the school a bus".
And even a school computer lab programme would run into the problem (umm, challenge!) that in Kenya, even the public procurement of pencils would result in pencil prices that will make the fainter of heart amongst you faint (also from said Focus Group member, an ever insightful man: 'If there was a tender to supply oxygen and rain to Kenya, the tender evaluation committee would place God third'). The recent government contortions with the tender are a wonder to behold. That concept of a 'best and final offer'? please! And then giving the tender to a company that does not actually manufacture any hardware, but whose sample was from a competing bidder who do actually manufacture them? That makes no sense to start with, and even less so because it breaks the tender requirement that the winning bidder would have to be the manufacturer.
So it all goes full circle: With the budget set aside for the laptops, and good management of resources, and a proper concept, you could move (educational) mountains. Or, you know, you can keep doing what you are doing now and (pretend to?) be surprised that school leavers, that lauded pool of human resources for Vision 2030, cannot string a written sentence together.