Free Education Programs and Quality: A Tale of Two Amazing Old Men

This week, the Biannual Workshop of the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) is being held in Arusha , Tanzania on June 3 to 8. The title of the day long plenary session held on June 3 was “Institutions and Service Delivery.” The primary objective of the session was to explore the paradox observed in many developing countries in which increased spending on social services such as education and health in is often not associated with concomitant increases in the quality and quantity of services. I presented one of the papers on the impact of free primary education program and the quality of learning in Kenya. Although the study used rather complex methodologies, the message can be explained easily with a tale of two amazing old men.

Using case studies investigating Kenya’s free primary education (FPE) program, which has been implemented since 2003, I outlined its major success – primarily the reversal of the hitherto declining school enrollment rates experienced during the 1990s. Eliminating user fees triggered massive enrollment of school age children who had dropped out or had never attended school. But even older people who had never set foot in school followed the young ones. One such example was an old man in his eighties—Mr. Kimani Murage—now well known as the “First grader” courtesy of a movie “The First Grader” depicting his life. Mr. Murage enrolled in grade one in 2004 at the age of 84, which earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to start school. He remained in school even after he was displaced following the post-election violence until he passed away in 2009 at the age of 90 years. He was known to be a committed student who aspired to learn to read the bible as he had always suspected that his pastor was not interpreting the text correctly. By all measures, the Kenya FPE program was greatly successful in achieving universal access to primary education.

However, the most important contributory factor was that the [FPE] program took away the ownership of public schools from the communities, resulting in weakened accountability in education delivery.

But that is just part of the story. As the research I presented shows, quality of learning rapidly deteriorated after the FPE program was implemented. This was partly due to the entry of older, poorer students who were less prepared and increased class size. However, the most important contributory factor was that the program took away the ownership of public schools from the communities, resulting in weakened accountability in education delivery. Parents could not even support parent-teacher associations or fund any school programs since the government made it illegal for schools to charge any fees. Prior to the introduction of FPE, poor parents contributed to the schools through “sweat equity” (providing labor for various projects) but this too was eliminated since FPE guaranteed education without parental contributions.

Free primary education weakened the claims that local communities had to what they considered ‘their’ schools. With this, incentives to monitor activity in schools or to hold the teachers accountable were greatly undermined. Findings show high rates of teacher absenteeism in public schools and even when in school, time spent teaching is very low. As access increased, the quality of learning declined precipitately.

The secondary effects of the decline in quality were immediate. Soon there was massive exodus from public schools as marginally “wealthy” parents pulled their children out of the public system and reenrolled them in private schools. Within the first years of FPE, hundreds of low-cost private schools emerged, even in the poorest slums. The end result has been the segregation of children based on family background—and a consequential widening gap between the quality of public schools and the new low-cost private schools. Today, these low-cost private schools are producing the best scoring students in the national examinations, giving them a comparative advantage for admission to the best national high schools. This is notwithstanding the fact that per student spending in the new private schools is less than half that spent in public schools.

From the perspective of access to education, Kenya’s FPE program – which provided opportunities to millions of children and older generations like the first grader – has been a resounding success. Most children are now in school and the country is well on its way to meeting the primary school Millennium Development Goal. However, the quality of learning in public schools has declined. Thus, if learning is the intended goal of FPE, then FPE has been a failure – and by our analysis, this is not due to resource constraints.

Contrast the story of the “first grader” with that of yet another Kenyan old man— Ancentus Ogwella Akuku–commonly known as Akuku “Danger.” Akuku Danger was a polygamist of extraordinary abilities and energy, with approximately 100 wives—give or take a few (apparently the origin of the nickname for he was dangerous with women) — and hundreds of children. Akuku was illiterate but his children are among the most educated in rural Kenya—doctors, lawyers, teachers, and more. Such a large number of his children live abroad that when he passed away just over a year ago, it took about two months to organize his funeral as his offspring had to travel from many parts of the world. Certainly, Akuku’s children must have benefitted from quality primary education—much like those in today’s private schools.

This is consistent with the findings of our study—quality of schooling depends primarily on accountability that comes with ownership.

But Akuku’s children went to public schools. Akuku had clear interest in education and invested heavily by donating land and building two primary schools and a church in his community. The schools were operated by the government just like other public schools and were open to other families. However, these schools were characterized by strong community ownership. By my interpretation, in the case of Akuku’s clan, quality schooling had more to do with community oversight than resources or the man’s obviously good genes. This is consistent with the findings of our study—quality of schooling depends primarily on accountability that comes with ownership.

The two old men in this story are heroes by my book. The “first grader” for his courage and determination to enroll in school at an advanced age and Akuku Danger—not because of his record as a polygamist (though managing such a household should count for some heroism)– but because he exemplifies the key ingredient that makes public services work: accountability that comes with a sense of ownership.

Our main finding is that quality of education boils down to the simple idea of local accountability, which ensures that teachers are not absent from schools and when in school, they teach. Such accountability is rooted in a sense of ownership. So, as governments and donors invest heavily in social services, they should take a lesson from Akuku Danger and make sure that they do not weaken ownership of the people served. The system that produced the first grader weakened ownership but provided otherwise unknown access. Akuku Danger managed a large household and instituted ownership in the public provision of schooling resulting in a quality education for his children. Thus, while there is merit in FPE programs that provide access to education to all, even people like the First Grader, access must be complemented with institutions that ensure accountability as exemplified by Akuku Danger.