Dependence of Urban Poor on Private Schools in Nairobi: An Institutional Analysis (Part II)

By Charity Limboro and Santhakumar V | Jun 16, 2022

A few researchers and a set of parents argue that low-fee private schools provide quality’ education. Though such schools fail in terms of almost all indicators of quality (basic infrastructure, qualified teachers, availability of learning materials), personal attention may enable some of their students to score better on standardized tests.

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Low-fee private schools as a response to government failures

Based on our observations of these two sets of schools (low-fee private schools and public schools), it seems that the emergence and sustenance of low-fee private schools is a response to government failures. There are multiple failures, the first being that there is a set of out-of-school children in these urban slums. Parents’ socio-economic position is such that they cannot ensure that these children are in school. This can be taken as a failure of the government since schooling for all is a responsibility to which Kenya is legally committed.

The second failure is that there are not enough schools close to informal settlements. There is an argument that the land on which these settlements come up is not legally owned (with a land registration number). This prevents the government from constructing public schools there. It is also mentioned that the government cannot take over private land for the construction of schools (though this can be done for the construction of roads). However, these legal restrictions do not seem to be insurmountable. We could see slum rehabilitation projects in Nairobi in which permanent high-rise buildings for the urban poor were constructed on the same land where the slums were. Hence, there are examples where slums are converted into formal settlements through government intervention. It is not clear why such a strategy cannot be extended to create government schools in such habitations.

The third failure is in the provision of schooling, in general, by the government. It seems as if the investments in education are not enough to make primary education accessible to all children, especially younger ones. It is important to have a primary school in all (or as many as possible) habitations or within a distance of 1 – 2 kilometres of them. However, Kenya is yet to reach such a situation.

Many countries have schemes to provide noon meals to students. This can serve different purposes. Parents who are in extreme poverty may take the meals provided in school as an incentive to send their children to school. Even those who are not in extreme poverty may find it difficult to send a meal for their children, and they would also benefit from meals provided in school. However, arranging meals for school children is seen as the parental responsibility and this could prevent a section of children from attending school in Kenya.

Inadequate public investments in education in Kenya manifest in other forms too. Apparently, there are not enough basic facilities, like desks and textbooks, in many public schools. Hence, public schools may press parents to bear the cost of these. Some parents may be able to bear it but those who cannot may face emotional challenges even if their children are not expelled from the school for this reason.

The lack of expansion combined with the higher demand for admission would also mean that there is overcrowding in public schools, which results in a higher pupil-teacher ratio and the teacher may not be able to provide personal attention to all children. This can work against those children who come from poorer families. Their parents may not be able to provide complementary academic support at home resulting in poor academic performance. Children from poorer families may tend to be less active in the classroom and hence, may receive lesser attention from teachers. The Kenyan education system does not seem to have enough remedial measures to improve the academic performance of children from poorer families.

The dependence on low-fee private schools is a response to these failures of the public education system. Parents may find it convenient and safer to send their younger children to private schools in their neighbourhood. Some of these schools also arrange a noon meal with the money provided by the parents (probably as part of the fee). These children may also be able to get some food from their households as the schools are in their own neighbourhood. Given the low enrolment in many of these low-fee paying schools, there is a possibility of the children getting better personal attention from teachers. This may work more like personal tutoring that can improve academic performance even if the teacher is not qualified. This personal attention may be encouraging a set of parents to these low-fee paying private schools. This may be the reason for a few researchers and a set of parents to argue that low-fee private schools provide quality’ education. Though such schools fail in terms of almost all indicators of quality (basic infrastructure, qualifications of teachers, the availability of learning materials), personal attention may enable some of their students to score better on standardised tests (and not necessarily in terms of all goals of education) than what they would have done in a typical government school.

The failure of the government to provide public education in slums is part of the global trend wherein slum-dwellers may not get many public services, such as water supply, electricity or public health care. In fact, these poorer people are forced to buy’ these services from private providers. It is interesting to note that the mainstream society (including the affluent) may get services, such as water supply from public (para-statal) organisations at a highly subsidised price, whereas the poorer slum-dwellers may have to buy poorer quality services sometimes at exorbitant costs.1

Like in a number of developing countries, the middle-class and richer sections in Kenya use private schools with better facilities but which charge higher fees. These are also known for preparing students well for competitive examinations. This is creating a situation where government schools which are located in relatively affluent areas may have more classes (sections) without enough enrolment. Hence, there are two kinds of withdrawals from or non-use of government schools in Kenya. Urban poor use low-fee private schools because of the non-availability of government schools in their locations and other kinds of inflexibilities. Affluent do not use government schools since they can afford to pay the higher fees in better-quality private schools. Both these reduce the coverage and scope of the public education system.

Response of the public education system to the existence of low-fee private schools

We could see two kinds of responses from the public education system. The first was to view such private schools as a not-so-desirable option and an expectation that all children should be using public schools. Such a response is not unique to Kenya and has a genuine rationale and desirable elements. However, we do not see effective strategies to improve the public education system as a follow-up of such a response.

A manifestation of this response is to give higher preference in the admissions to public secondary schools (which seem to have wider social acceptance as a better option) to those children who pass out of public primary schools. Those children who complete primary schooling in private schools are at a disadvantage here. Though a set of private secondary schools have come up to exploit this situation, their quality is probably worse than that of private primary schools. (This is not surprising since secondary education requires better-qualified teachers and other facilities, and these low-fee private schools may not be able to bear these costs.) However, this policy of giving a higher preference to those studying in public schools without an adequate effort to expand public education to all areas (including informal settlements) amounts to discrimination against a set of students who are poor and vulnerable in socio-economic terms.

Complete neglect of or indifference towards these low-fee private schools may not be feasible politically. These private schools are almost like a small-scale industry which provides some informal sector employment. Since politicians are influenced by such pressure groups all over the world, it looks like the Kenyan government is also not willing to kill this education industry’. Some lifelines may be extended to such an economic or social activity and that leads to the second response.

The second response, which may be shaped partly by the association of these alternative schools or may be due to the influence of other actors who advocate privatisation or public-private partnership as a desirable reform in school education, is the plan to provide government funds to these private schools. This is in the form of a grant per child and other support, such as for textbooks and so on. This is expected to be provided to those private schools which register for this purpose which also means that these have to meet certain regulatory requirements. This process has not progressed much since there are impediments on the part of the government to provide such financial support. It seems that all private schools may not register since some of them may be apprehensive about the possible loss of freedom in the running of their enterprises if these are registered.

There are two kinds of problems with the second response. One is to criticise it theoretically. Is it a desirable strategy to fund these schools rather than using the same financial resources to make the public education system inclusive by accommodating those children who learn in low-fee private schools? There are valid arguments for strengthening government schools, especially those which are used by children from poorer families (The Need to Strengthen Government Schools in India). Even if money is provided to these private schools, it requires a higher level of monitoring on the part of the government to see that these schools which receive funding use it to provide quality schooling for the targeted children. This may lead to some level of micro-management or intrusive regulation, which may not be liked or may be resisted by the fund-receiving schools. Many times, governments (especially in developing countries) may fail to enforce the necessary regulations, and then the schools may follow practices which need not enhance the quality of education.2

Two, whatever the merit of such an approach, it has not become a reality. Hence, the problems of such private schools persist. The resource constraints and administrative difficulties which prevent the government from increasing the number of government schools may work against the provision of financial resources to private schools too.

Non-governmental efforts to improve the situation of low-fee private schools

The association to which a set of alternative (complementary) schools are affiliated takes a few steps to improve the education in these schools. The first is to have a collective articulation of the role played by these schools in the education scene of Kenya (given the fact that the government has not been successful in starting its own schools in these informal settlements). The organisation is also lobbying the government to get recognition and possible financial support for these schools.

The functionaries of this association and partners attempt to make multiple efforts to improve the functioning of these schools. In partnership with an organisation –Kenya Initiative on Self-Sustainability Programme (KISSPRO), there have been efforts to professionalise’ the management of these schools. This is done by improving the payment and accounting systems and also by improving human resource management. If these schools – which are informal private enterprises – have the appropriate incentives to adopt these practices of professionalisation, is not clear.

There are other efforts, like bringing teenage mothers who dropped out of school back to education through these schools. This is carried out by another organisation called 1024. The organisation works with children and youth (between 10 – 24 years of age) in and out of school to empower them in four areas: sexual and reproductive health, online protection, substance addiction disorder and mental health This is implemented with the possible support from corporate organisations. Private schools which are situated in informal settlements may have certain advantages in admitting teenage mothers. These mothers can be closer to their kids (compared to the situation in a distant public school). There may be other flexibilities in these schools which may suit teenage mothers. However, teenage motherhood and consequent withdrawal from school is not an insignificant problem, and if education for all is to be achieved in Kenya, there is a need for public schools to embrace Re-entry policy guidelines (RoK, 2015) for girls who drop out of school after becoming pregnant

A possible scenario if the government provides financial support to low-fee private schools

What may happen if the government provides financial grants per child to these low-fee private schools? There are possible gains and pitfalls. One possible gain is an incentive for the management to see that all dropped-out children are admitted to schools. Each owner/​manager of such a private school may try to get as many children as possible (as a way to enhance the revenue) and the parents may be willing to send these children to schools (as the main part of the cost, that is, the tuition fee, to be borne by the government). The competition among such private schools (many such schools exist and there seems to be a certain level of competition among them currently) may enhance the enrolment. Santhakumar has seen and noted such a trend in the Kerala state of India, where the governmental support for private schools and their competition (along with the other measures to enhance the demand for education) has increased the enrolment.

There could be possible pitfalls when the government provides financial support to these private schools. There is a need to assess the cost (to estimate the required financial support). If the financial support is based on the actual cost of these schools, it is legitimising the inferior’ quality of education which is provided to these poorer kids. If attempts are made to provide better-quality schooling, then, the costs on the part of the government may go up. There may be a need to assess the actual enrolment in these schools since there can be a duplication of attendance. In such a case in India, the government is forced to conduct an inspection of attendance in all schools on a single day to minimise the practice by which different schools may show the same student on their attendance registers. Otherwise, the biometric details of all children in a region must be made available. Implementing such a biometric registration in the case of children who live in informal settlements is not an easy task.

There may be other challenges in managing the process when the government finances these schools. There may be a need to set standards for the quality of schools. If the government wants these schools to have an infrastructure which is somewhat similar to that in government schools, private entrepreneurs may not be able to provide it, given the way the land is used in these settlements. The improvement in infrastructure may require more capital, and that may increase the cost of education. If this cost is not fully met by the government, then these schools may charge a fee to meet the cost, but then these schools will be accessible to an even smaller section of children from the slums.

Another aspect of the quality is the qualification and preparedness of teachers. Currently, the low-fee private schools employ those people who are willing to teach at lower salaries (and some of them do not have the training to be teachers). This situation may not be compatible with the public financing of these schools. The government regulation which would accompany the financing of private schools may have conditions to ensure the quality of teachers. This may necessitate an increase in the salaries of these teachers which in turn may increase the cost of education in these schools. All this may make the assessment of financial support that is needed to support each child at the current cost of these private schools untenable. On the other hand, if the government is increasing the financial assistance to such schools to make the facilities there compatible with those of the government schools, then the financial burden on the state may become closer to the one that is needed to expand public education to these areas.

A comparison with the situation in India

The use of private schools by poorer sections of the population is prevalent in India too. Some of these private schools have minimal infrastructure and less qualified or experienced teachers. However, there are some differences in India when compared with the situation in Kenya.

There are government schools which are accessible to children from the informal settlements or slums of India. It could be that such schools were built on public land within or very close to these slums. The distance to the nearby government school may not be much for most students (and most students may have access to a school within their settlement itself). These schools provide education free of cost. Moreover, such schools also provide noon meals, uniforms and in most cases, textbooks, as part of the government policy of reducing the indirect costs of education. The practice of pressuring parents to meet the cost of desks or other such amenities in government schools is not prevalent in India. Even if some money is collected by the school management committees or parent-teacher associations, poorer parents may be able to get education for their wards without having to pay such charges. Moreover, early childcare centres are operated by the Government of India in all parts of the country, including slums, and these also provide not only education but also supplementary food for younger children. In essence, not only the direct but also the indirect costs of accessing schools seem significantly lower in India.

Hence, the reasons for using private schools in India are somewhat different. This is not seen among the very poor but among the aspirational’ poor (those who aspire to be like the middle class). The latter may want to have an English-medium education. Most government schools, until recently, used only the regional language as the medium of instruction. However, the middle- and upper-middle class get English medium education in private schools. There is also a perception (which has a basis in reality) that English-medium education is useful for getting better jobs. For these reasons, the lower-middle-class and the aspirational poor want English-medium education for their kids and that prompts them to use private schools. Since they cannot afford the fees of those private schools which have better facilities but charge higher fees, they may use low-fee private schools.

There are also other perceptions which encourage the lower-middle-class to use private schools. Classrooms and instruction in private schools are seen as more disciplined which encourages children to learn. Also, homework may be seen by parents as necessary, and public school teachers may not insist on homework. There is also a perception that government school teachers do not care about the learning of students. There was also (incorrect) discourse on the higher level of absenteeism of government school teachers. All these also encourage a section of the lower-middle-class to use low-fee private schools.

It may be better to view the withdrawal from government schools by a section of poorer or lower-middle-class parents who want good quality education for their wards as an outcome of the problem of collective action in such schools. When government schools in poorer localities are used by those parents who do not value education too much (due to their socio-economic conditions, limited education and aspirations) and others who value education, there could be problems in facilitating collective action of parents to improve the quality of education. This may encourage the latter to move out of government schools in certain cases.

In essence, one can argue that though sections of poorer parents use low-fee private schools in both Kenya and India, the underlying reasons seem to be different. However, both face challenges to ensure that school education is accessible to all children.f


Charity Limboro, Lecturer, School of Education, Kenyatta University, Nairobi
Santhakumar V, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, India

Featured photo by Oscar Omondi on Unsplash


UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2021). Global Out-of-school Children Initiative (OOSCI): Kenya Country Study.

Republic of Kenya. Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (2014) Education for All 2015 National Review.

  1. The instances where slum-dwellers buy water from private tanker-lorry suppliers is common in the developing world. The per-unit cost of water supply through such tanker-lorries could be much higher than that of centralized water supply even if we neglect the subsidies provided by the government. The former could be part of for-private business whereas the latter is likely to provide a higher level of subsidy.↩︎

  2. There are cases where schools may not admit all deserving children or may admit only those who can perform academically better, or show inflated figures of attendance, and so on. When the salaries of private schools are paid by the government, these teachers may be appointed by the management of private schools by taking a bribe from them whether there is a difference between the salaries of private and public schools.↩︎