Kenya is rapidly expanding its educational opportunities. Demands for secondary education are increasing with the expansion of primary education, and the net enrollment rate rose to 51% in 2017 (Republic of Kenya 2018). Kenya introduced the Free Secondary Education Policy in 2008, allocating KES 10,265 to public schools (*100KES≒1USD). This allocation more than doubled to KES 22,244 in 2018, enabling day students to attend public secondary school cost-free except for lunch fees of about KES 7,000–10,000 per year. The government prohibited public secondary schools (day schools) from rejecting students based on grades, which increased access to secondary school for all primary school leavers. However, private secondary schools were destabilized because all prospective students were able to attend the less expensive day schools.
Despite the financial benefit, not all students choose the cost-free option, and it is not clear why they attend private schools instead of public schools. In particular, in the context of primary education, studies have pointed out how private schools are rapidly increasing in South Asia and SSA. Though several studies have discussed the flourishing of the private sector in the context of primary education, there has been a limited focus on secondary education. As a result, the reasons for students attending private schools and not public schools and the role of private schools in secondary education remain unclear. This study aimed to understand the place of private secondary schools in rural Kenya under the Free Secondary Education Policy. Data were collected at four private schools through fieldwork during two months in 2018 and 2019 in X sub-county of western Kenya. Semi-structured interviews and participant observation were employed to learn the reasons why students were enrolled and identify the teachers/directors’ efforts to maintain their schools.
All four schools were unstable because of low enrollment, particularly after 2018 when the cost-free secondary education policy was implemented. After my fieldwork, in 2019, two schools were forced to shut down because of low enrollment. The principals reported that their schools were not running on a profit-based business model and that they depended on contributions. They all shared the opinion that their schools were stronger before the policy was implemented. During a 2018 interview, one principal stated, ‘The government is really destroying private schools.’
Although the numbers of students enrolled at private schools are sharply decreasing, some students still prefer private schools. Day schools are the least expensive, but private schools are preferred alternatives for students with special circumstances. Some students choose private schools to avoid problems related to overcrowding in public schools, such as overage students, pregnancy, behavioral problems, or severe learning deficits. Further, private schools are flexibly managed, and some students pay no fees; their costs are covered by the contributions of other students’ families. It is reasonable to conclude that there is an internal social redistribution at private schools.
The implementation of free education hurts private schools that accept vulnerable students and those who are excluded from public schools. As found in the study, some private schools were forced to close. These private schools needed to limit the number of students they sponsor owing to unstable management. This study argues for the possibility and importance of private schools working as a safety net by accepting vulnerable children who cannot be absorbed by public schools for various reasons. Although it is true that private schools lack basic learning materials as compared to public schools, they have a strong role to play in achieving ‘education for all’, by including those falling outside the academic pyramid of public schools.