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COVID-19 threatens the very existence of low-cost private schools.

February 21st, 2021

Globally, economies have been significantly and negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Kenya, like much of the world, low-income households have been particularly adversely affected. What do the dwindling incomes mean for such households now and in the future? Will these households be able to afford education for their children?

The private school education sector has been one of the fastest growing in Kenya. The introduction of universal primary education in Kenya in 2003 led to proliferation of low-cost private schools.  The reason for this growth is two-fold: the lack of capacity in the local public schools due to the increased demand and a deterioration in the quality of education as the pupil to teacher ratios significantly increased.

It is estimated that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 low-cost private schools in Kenya serving between 6 million and 10 million students. Most of these schools are located in low-income urban and semi-urban areas, with the majority in Nairobi. The number of public schools in most of these locations has remained the same despite this doubling in the number of students in primary schools. The low-cost private schools thus fill an important gap in the education sector and therefore keeping these schools open is not optional. The big question is, how will these schools remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic and as the economy starts to recover? How will they be financed?

Based on the Kenyan national FinAccess surveys, education is a highly valued investment across all income categories but much more so by low-income households. To such households, access to education means anticipation of income in the future and a better life even though this is not guaranteed. Low-income households make many sacrifices educate their children and give them the best chance in life. There is a tendency to take children to low-cost private schools either because there are no public schools in the vicinity or because the private schools are perceived to deliver a higher quality of education than the public ones.

In the last quarter of 2020, FSD Kenya commissioned a survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on low-cost private primary schools in Kenya and how their recovery will be financed. The study covered 23 counties including Nairobi which has most of these schools.  A low-cost private school was defined as one that charges a maximum of KShs 30,000 per student per year.

Based the survey, households’ incomes have notably dwindled. A third of the of the 324 households interviewed reported that they were relying on employment before the onset of COVID-19 in mid-March 2020. This proportion had reduced to a paltry 5% by end of November 2020.  Those formerly employed had transitioned to casual labour and farming as coping mechanisms and about half of them were struggling to get food. By November 2020, three quarters of these households were earning KShs 10,000 or less per month, had used up most of their savings, and were over-indebted – 84% had more debt than before. 42% estimated that they would take more than 6 months to financially recover to pre-COVID-19 levels once ‘normalcy’ resumes.

While 98% of the owners had already re-opened or were planning to re-open schools at the time of the survey, they face two key challenges: how to financially keep the school running and how to comply with the COD-19 containment protocols such as social distancing.  About half of these schools operate in rented premises, space is limited and meeting the social distancing requirement means expanding the physical infrastructure which will increase their operational costs. They are confident that the students will get back to school but they worry about if the parents will be able to pay the school fees.

A significant part of these schools’ operational costs is teachers’ salaries.  Following schools’ physical closure, there was very little learning with about 50% of the schools reporting no learning or contact with the students at all. Consequently, school fees was not paid and 74% of the teachers didn’t get any salary during the first 8 months of the pandemic in 2020. Although several banks and other commercial lenders are offering financing to schools, this will be unaffordable as long as parents are not able to pay fees, which 94% of the school owners report as the main source of income for these small businesses.

What options exists for school education finance during COVID-19 and the economic recovery? The view of most of the school owners interviewed during the survey was that the government needs to help. In situations of dire economic need like the current pandemic, public welfare support becomes inevitable. While these are private businesses and some may not see the reason why the  government should subsidise their operations, millions of children across Kenya rely on these schools for their education.. In appreciation of the crucial role these low-cost private schools are play in providing a basic service to this segment of the Kenyan population, the government could extend the subsidy given to public schools, to these low-income households. It can provide education welfare grants or cash transfers to students in these schools. These could be paid directly to the schools to ensure that there is no diversion.

Despite their current financial situation, parents are determined to keep their children in school. More than half of those interviewed had at least two children in school but they cannot even afford to pay fees for one now. Given the importance parents attach to education, they are willing to borrow for school fees but they would struggle to service these loans. Some reported that they are considering sending their children to school in turns – with children attending school alternately each term – as a coping mechanism. Households are willing to set aside a proportion of their meagre income towards school fees. Although these savings would not be sufficient, private sector solutions that enable the regular payment of these small amounts to the schools would go a long away as await the economic recovery.

Wanza Mbole Namboya is Senior Economic Inclusion Advisor. Twitter: @felistusmbole @FSDKe

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