That makes it vital to encourage girls through school on as many levels as possible. In turn, that means encouraging policy makers to base policies on an understanding of the real experience of school-aged girls, Ms. Fyles says, and monitoring their implementation. It also means reaching out to communities’ families and teaching them the importance of girl-focused education.
Breaking past primary
For cultural, social and financial reasons, girls often don’t enrol in secondary school, which frequently requires board and has significantly more costs than primary education. Without this further education, though, girls can’t expand on the skills they’ve already learned, and risk having children of their own earlier in life, further hindering work opportunities and increasing the risk of unhealthy babies.
At Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School, in Kipsigis territory in Narok South, “It was not easy in the beginning” to bring in students, says Carolyn Moraa, the school’s senior education facilitator.
The school was opened in 2011, and when the first handful of students were accepted, Ms. Moraa says families were skeptical, with many still leaning toward having their girls married after Grade 8.
But it was the attitude girls brought home from the school – where the costs of tuition and board are covered by sponsors through Free the Children – that changed the local mindset.
“They were more open-minded, more involved in their communities, more responsible, and they kept talking about a better future for them – a better future for their community,” Ms. Moraa says.
Free the Children expects the school to be full with 200 students when the January semester begins, with another nearby school, Oleleshwa All Girls Secondary Boarding School, scheduled to open in the Maasai region at the same time. The girls who study there dream of careers, and in many cases, for the first time in history of women in their family, they will go on to have one.
“I would like to join one of the best universities in Kenya and study law, because I want to be a lawyer,” says Grade 10 student Irene Nabaala. Grade 11 student Florence Ololoso is happy to use the school’s computers. “I’m trying to have the skills that I can use during work,” she says.
More women with secondary education is crucial for democratic growth, Ms. Fyles says. “If classrooms are undermining opportunities for them to think, then it’s not going to happen – we’re not going to see the empowerment, the transformative influence of education.”
Even if students stop at secondary education, Kisaruni teaches vocational skills that girls can use in their community. “If a girl does not attain the minimum grade of getting into university,” Ms. Moraa says, “we want her to be able to start a business, and manage it well.”
A half-hour’s drive from Kisaruni, up a rocky, hilly road lined with sisal plants and candelabra trees, Pimbiniet Primary School faces a different employment problem: Like many primary schools in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa, it can’t always afford to pay its teachers.
The school has 18 teachers, but just 11 are funded by the government – the rest are paid for by the community to ease the load of 684 students that need teaching.
“Those seven teachers ... sometimes the parents may not really be able to pay for them,” Mr. Maritim, the school’s head teacher, says just before teaching his Grade 6 class. “So it makes us send these children home, like, five times in a month.”
Many governments, Kenya’s included, pay for a given amount of teachers at every school. But in the advent of free primary education, enrolment has expanded faster than teacher funding. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the biggest teaching gaps worldwide – it’ll need a million more teachers across 36 countries by 2015 to come close to reaching universal primary education, not counting the additional teachers needed to replace those who retire.
That leaves schools like Pimbiniet forced to hire its own teachers to supplement its government allowance. But it’s still a Band-Aid measure: At Pimbiniet, even with its community of teachers, the average class size is 40 or 50 students a classroom. (Most of those children share tattered books, illustrating another supply gap that became exaggerated when Kenya made primary education free.)
Classroom size varies across sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s rarely comfortable. Out of the 25 countries reporting such data to UNESCO, the average number of students ranges from 24 in the island state of Seychelles, to 94 in Malawi, likely owing to the expansion of free primary education. More than half of the countries reporting classroom size have an average of 50 or more students a class.
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