Challenges in Schooling for Rural Poor: India versus Kenya (Part I)

There are important differences in the schooling patterns in India and Kenya. For example, those social groups that do not do well in education are different in the two countries. But this note focuses on the differences in the responses of governments in both countries in addressing the challenges related to the demand for and supply of education, among the rural poor.

Kenya Benard Nyatuka Part I 1 1024x683


Children from poor and marginalised groups face challenges in access and use of school education. This is more in developing countries where governments have not invested adequately in public education. Some of these challenges are documented in the case of India1 and Kenya. This note makes a comparison between these two countries in terms of the challenges to school education for the rural poor.

Though enrolment at the primary school level is nearly universal in India, it is not without the problems of dropouts and irregular attendance in these grades. Non-enrolment in secondary grades is a major problem in the country as is the unsatisfactory academic performance of those who attend school, as evident from annual surveys on learning achievement.2

Though India has witnessed a substantial expansion of public education during the last two to three decades, there is further scope to strengthen it. There have been notable improvements in school infrastructure and other facilities too, however, under-achievements in education, as mentioned earlier, persist despite these improvements. This has persuaded a few of us to focus on the demand factors in education. The book Schooling for All: Can We Neglect the Demand?’ co-authored by Santhakumar is an outcome of this.

India has a number of socio-economic constraints which may prevent sections of children from using school education well. Poverty persists and is an important factor diminishing the demand for school education. However, the underachievement in education persists even among those people who get out of poverty. People belonging to the lower castes who are also poor seem to encounter caste-related challenges even when they can get out of extreme poverty. The historical deprivation of these groups in terms of education has not just impacted parents’ education but continues to shape the challenges of first-generation school-goers from these groups. The Scheduled Tribes face other challenges (in addition to poverty and discrimination), such as the absence of education in their mother tongue and its failure to connect with their life and culture. These hamper their assimilation of modern education. This is also true for other vulnerable groups, such as religious minorities and those who live in remote regions.

Largely, Kenya too faces similar challenges. There is non-enrolment, irregular attendance, and dropping out of sections of children. Consequently, 4 in 10 children of pre-school age are not in school while 38 and 43 in 100 boys and girls, respectively, meet expectations in reading a grade III appropriate text.3 Overall, the drop-out rate of children at the primary school level is estimated to be 21 percent. Generally, the quality of teaching and learning outcomes is poor, especially in arid as well as informal settlements. Enrolment and school completion rates significantly vary across the country. For instance, whereas the national net enrolment is 87 percent, it is a paltry 34 and 33 percent in the arid counties and informal settlements in Nairobi.4

Similarly, while the national primary school completion is 78 percent, it is a mere 35 and 49 percent in the arid counties and informal settlements. This is also noted by Kenyan researchers and school teachers. It is worth reiterating that only a minority of students who attend day government schools learn adequately. Based on the observation of a government school teacher, not more than 30 percent of students achieve reasonable academic proficiency based on standardised test scores.

However, our observations and discussions show that there are important differences in the schooling patterns in India and Kenya. First, those social groups which do not do well in education could be different in the two countries. We do not touch upon this issue in this paper.5 Instead, this note focuses on the differences in the responses of governments in both countries in addressing the challenges related to the demand for and supply of education, among the rural poor. Nyatuka as a faculty of Kisii University has many years of experience and exposure to school education in Kenya. Santhakumar is a researcher working on education and development interlinkages mainly in India. Their respective experiences inform this note. Moreover, a short-period joint field-work in Kenya and discussions with researchers and different stakeholders of school education also contribute to this note.

There are detailed accounts of the challenges of school education in Kenya.6 One such study notes the following challenges: understaffing, massive unplanned expansions of schools, the inability of parents to provide subsistence, the issue of quality and delayed disbursement of funds, amongst others, thereby rendering education unable to efficiently play its role in poverty alleviation’.7 Though this study may not add much to the discussion on the challenges to school education in Kenya, its value is in the comparative picture between the two countries.

Observations on rural poor and school education in Kenya

These are a few impressions of Kenya’s school education while viewing it from an experience of the Indian situation. Girls seem to be doing relatively well in school education in general in Kenya. There is an emerging public discourse on the challenges faced by boys though. Teachers also spoke about some children from poorer families performing well academically. There seems to be a higher level of participation of parents in the affairs of the school in terms of mobilising resources and building infrastructure. There is a governing board as well as a parent association for each public school. There is widespread interest in education even among poorer families.

Based on our experience and observations in some rural areas of Kenya, we make the following observations.

  1. There are a number of public and private schools (or those run by religious organisations) in rural Kenya. Some of these private schools may be charging lower fees. Therefore, access to school may not be a major constraint for most children. However, since the settlement of people in Kenya is somewhat distributed in its rural parts (and not concentrated as in most parts of India), the distance to the nearest public primary school could be two to four kilometres for some children. This may have a negative impact on their access to education.8 It may encourage a section of them to use one or another private school closer to their residence or may not use a school at all (if a private school is not affordable).
  2. There are a number of issues with the public schools in rural Kenya. Though these have adequate land, the buildings are not in good condition. In one school that we visited, most classrooms had a mud floor, toilets did not have a water supply, and the furniture was scarce.9 There was also a shortage of learning materials.10 The situation of these rural government schools is remarkably different from the same type of schools in urban areas.
  3. It seems that the government schools do not get adequate financial support from the national and/​or county governments11 and a part of the cost of even the infrastructure may have to be met by parents.12 Hence parents’ financial and social capital matters in getting adequate facilities for government schools. This may work against rural public schools which are used by children from poorer families. This could be the reason for the notable difference in the amenities of both kinds of government schools.
  4. Public schools do not provide but insist on school uniforms. Though textbooks are available, these are not enough. There is no lunch provided in government schools in general.13 All these factors make the indirect cost of using public schools higher even if the tuition is free.14 This increases the private expenditure on education. One account, based on a small sample, notes that the median private expenditure on school could be around 11 percent of overall household expenditure,15 especially for poor families in Kenya.
  5. Though there is non-enrolment to some extent, it may not be significant. We visited a poor family which faces severe financial challenges and learned that the issue was not the non-enrolment in primary grades but more of the transition to high school. In addition to the underachievement in primary grades, the economic difficulties of the family may work against the transition to high school. Some children may continue in primary grade until the family is in a position to meet the cost of secondary school. When there are more children and the families cannot mobilise enough money for the secondary schooling of all children, some of them may drop out.16 Though there are efforts to make secondary education free, and provide financial support, it is not currently free for the poor.17
  6. Irregular attendance is a major challenge. There are boys and girls who cannot go to school because they need to help their parents or serve as caretakers.18 Some of the parents themselves may not be too concerned about the irregularity of attendance of children in schools. Hence, attendance is left to the motivation of students, which too adversely affects it.
  7. As noted earlier, some sections of children may not do well in terms of learning achievements.19 The family atmosphere may not be conducive. They may have to devote a part of their time to helping parents, or their guardians may not be able to provide the additional academic support that they require. All of these can affect their academic performance and consequently, the transition of students from primary to high school.20 The lack of sufficient resources in schools can affect the implementation of reforms (such as the new Competency-Based Curriculum) meant to make classroom instruction more effective.21
  8. Both rich and poor families share similar social identities in terms of ethnicity or religion. There are poor as well as educated families belonging to the same ethnic identity (Luo, Kisii, etc). Hence, compared to India, identity-based discrimination may not be a serious issue in rural Kenya. However, there are ethnic groups which may not be doing well in general. This could be more due to the nature of their livelihood and other practices.
  9. Poor people in Kenya seem to have access to land but the real challenge is low productivity from it. A family that faces poverty and other vulnerabilities that we have visited in western Kenya has about two acres of land that is cultivated partially. However, the agricultural output may not be enough to take them out of poverty.22 Weather and soil conditions keep them poor.
  10. The availability of food for poor families depends almost completely on their ability to produce it on their own farms or to purchase from markets. Though some food materials are provided during extreme famines (though that support may be minimal and may not reach all needy people), there is no steady governmental support that ensures food for the poor. There is no public distribution system which distributes food materials at subsidised rates. The absence of such a system may increase food poverty in families, which in turn, can affect the education of their children.
  11. Family size continues to be large. Three to four children are a norm in Kenyan families, and this can be higher among the poor ones. This may be partly due to underdevelopment, but the higher family size may aggravate the poverty too. This has a bearing on parents’ preparedness to educate their children.
  12. There are other vulnerabilities for the rural poor. The higher prevalence of HIV in the past has led to high mortality among adults, and hence there are a number of children without parents. They are being taken care of by grandparents (more specifically grandmothers). These older people are not in a position to work and earn enough. Hence, grandchildren may have to work to support these families which affects their education. We could not see any special support for families affected by the death of parents due to HIV.
  13. There is discrimination against girls in terms of education in certain23 but not all communities in Kenya. However, teenage pregnancy can be a reason for the dropping out of girls.24 It may be difficult for some of them to come back to school after childbirth even though there are efforts in this direction, including a re-admission policy. Girls and boys are relatively more autonomous (compared to India) in terms of getting into relationships and sometimes, these can lead to pregnancies. Our discussions indicate that these pregnancies may happen in all economic classes and not only among the poor.
  14. Though there is a government scheme to support older people (giving them a monthly income), it may not reach them timely. Moreover, there may be procedures mediated by community elders or local officials in the disbursement of this support and these can work against the access to such support by needy people. The lack of such support may lead to the persistence of poverty of older people and their dependants.

All these factors affect the education of a set of children in rural areas. This is due to the combination of the supply and demand factors. How such factors affect the education of children from poorer families in India is discussed in the next section.


1. A description of the Indian situation in this regard can be seen in Santhakumar, V. Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. (2016) Schooling for All in India: Can We Neglect the Demand? Delhi: Oxford University Press.

2. These issues are discussed in the book Schooling for All: Can We Neglect the Demand?

3. Uwezo (2021). Are all our children learning? Uwezo 7th learning assessment report. Nairobi. Usawa Agenda.

4. UN Common country analysis report for Kenya (2021)

5. This may be discussed in a paper to be compiled by a team of colleagues from Kisii University, Kenya.

6. Such as http://​www​.dropout​pre​ven​tion​.org/​e​n​g​a​g​e​-​b​a​c​k​u​p​/​a​c​c​e​s​s​-​i​s​s​u​e​s​-​i​n​-​k​e​n​y​a​n​-​p​r​i​m​a​r​y​-​e​d​u​c​a​tion/

7. Oranga, Josephine & Obuba, Enock & Nyakundi, Eliud. (2020). Education as an Instrument of Poverty Eradication in Kenya: Successes and Challenges. Open Journal of Social Sciences. 08. 410 – 424. 10.4236/jss.2020.89031

8. Walking this much distance can be tiring for a child attending primary school. One study noted that many (students) arrive exhausted by their long and treacherous treks to get there’. http://​www​.dropout​pre​ven​tion​.org/​e​n​g​a​g​e​-​b​a​c​k​u​p​/​a​c​c​e​s​s​-​i​s​s​u​e​s​-​i​n​-​k​e​n​y​a​n​-​p​r​i​m​a​r​y​-​e​d​u​c​a​tion/

9. These limitations of infrastructure are noted by researchers who have studied a larger number of rural schools in Kenya. Ogembo, Javier & Ngugi, Benjamin & Pelowski, Matthew. (2012). Computerising Primary Schools in Rural Kenya: Outstanding Challenges and Possible Solutions. The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries. 52. 10.1002/j.1681 – 4835.2012.tb00371.x.

10. This is noted by others too. For example, https://​eneza​e​d​u​ca​tion​.com/​c​h​a​l​l​e​n​g​e​s​-​f​a​c​e​d​-​b​y​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​i​n​-​t​h​e​-​r​u​r​a​l​-​k​enya/

11. This situation of inadequate funding from the government and the need to depend on fees by the government schools has been noted by other external commentators. For example, see https://​the​kick​start​pro​ject​.com​.au/​b​l​o​g​s​/​n​e​w​s​/​2017​/​D​e​c​/​9​/​c​h​a​l​l​e​n​g​e​s​-​f​a​c​i​n​g​-​r​u​r​a​l​-​e​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​i​n​-​kenya

12. A part of the money comes from the government through the constituency development fund.

13. There could be lunch programs in specific areas for specific seasons organised by the international, governmental and non-governmental organanisations. Parents also may collect money and provide meals to all children. However, there is no such universal programme funded by the government of Kenya in all its government schools.

14. One study notes: Even when schools are free, there are additional expenses for materials, food, extra payments for teachers and exams, and a number of other costs that add up. School fees is seen as the major expense for most households and an important cause of concern and anxiety.’ https://​bfa​glob​al​.com/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2020​/​06​/​E​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​F​u​n​d​i​n​g​-​i​n​-​K​e​n​y​a​_​J​F​-​V​0​.​4.pdf

15. https://​bfa​glob​al​.com/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2020​/​06​/​E​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​F​u​n​d​i​n​g​-​i​n​-​K​e​n​y​a​_​J​F​-​V​0​.​4.pdf; Executive summary

16. https://​bfa​glob​al​.com/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2020​/​06​/​E​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​F​u​n​d​i​n​g​-​i​n​-​K​e​n​y​a​_​J​F​-​V​0​.​4.pdf

17. Ohba, A. (2009) Does free secondary education enable the poor to gain access? A study from rural Kenya, CREATE PATHWAYS TO ACCESS Research Monograph No 21, Centre for International Education University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

18. This is noted by other studies too. One such study notes: Study participants indicated that poorer students may not be able to attend school on a regular basis due to the need for children to help support the family, as illustrated in a picture of a schoolboy tending a goat farm for the well-being of his family’. http://​www​.dropout​pre​ven​tion​.org/​e​n​g​a​g​e​-​b​a​c​k​u​p​/​a​c​c​e​s​s​-​i​s​s​u​e​s​-​i​n​-​k​e​n​y​a​n​-​p​r​i​m​a​r​y​-​e​d​u​c​a​tion/

19. There is evidence from Kenya on the connection between the educational achievements of children and the poverty status of their families. Maiyo, J. (2015) Education and poverty correlates: A case of TransNzoia County, Kenya, International Journal of Educational Administration and Policy Studies, 7(7), pp. 142 – 148, DOI: 10.5897/IJEAPS2015.0403

20. One commentator noted: As a result of all these challenges more than 50% of my primary school mates did not make it to high school’. https://​eneza​e​d​u​ca​tion​.com/​c​h​a​l​l​e​n​g​e​s​-​f​a​c​e​d​-​b​y​-​s​t​u​d​e​n​t​s​-​i​n​-​t​h​e​-​r​u​r​a​l​-​k​enya/

21. Akala, B. M. (2021) Revisiting education reform in Kenya: A case of Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 3, 1, https://​www​.sci​encedi​rect​.com/​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​p​i​i​/​S​2590291121000036

22. It is noted that only 20 percent of Kenya is cultivable. Langinger, N. (2011). School feeding programs in Kenya: Transitioning to a homegrown approach. Stanford Journal of International Relations, XIII (1), 30 – 37

23. For example, this is noted in Maasai community. http://​www​.dropout​pre​ven​tion​.org/​e​n​g​a​g​e​-​b​a​c​k​u​p​/​a​c​c​e​s​s​-​i​s​s​u​e​s​-​i​n​-​k​e​n​y​a​n​-​p​r​i​m​a​r​y​-​e​d​u​c​a​tion/

24. Chege, F. N., & Sifuna, D. N. (2006).Girls‘ and womens education in Kenya: Gender perspectives and trends. Nairobi: UNESCO


Benard Nyatuka is Senior Lecturer/​Researcher, Educational Foundations, Kisii University, Kenya.

V Santhakumar is Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Featured photo by Bennett Tobias on Unsplash

Read Part II here