Naturally, this frustrates teachers. Ngunyumu Primary School in Kenya has 16 government-paid teachers and two community teachers to handle 1,000 students. Mr. Moywaywa, the school’s gym teacher, worries that students can’t learn in such an environment. “We cannot be able to teach all those children – to reach them,” he says. “That ratio is not practical.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, “As the numbers of children attending primary school have swollen, governments have tried to squeeze more for less out of teachers,” says Jo Walker, policy manager for the Global Campaign for Education, which estimates that up to half of African children in school fail to master reading and writing in the first four years of school.
“Redressing this will involve expanding recruitment and training, as well as making the profession more attractive to well-educated young people by improving pay and conditions – and this all takes money,” she says.
Among those teachers that need to be hired, women should be a priority, experts say – not just to encourage girls to learn, but to convince parents in certain cultures that their daughters are receiving an education they’re comfortable with. Some regions require a woman in every classroom, or at least every school, Ms. Fyles says. “We know that is has an enormous impact on families’ readiness to send their girl children to school.”
And the need for more teachers is even more dire in rural areas, where it’s difficult to convince trained educators to go. “It’s difficult to get the right incentives,” Ms. Rose says. “I wouldn’t envy a teacher in that situation.”
On-site accommodations, financial bonuses, and school-rotation systems may be the way to go, she says, to encourage teachers to go to far-flung areas to teach the children who need education the most.
“You can’t pay someone enough if you wish for them to live in complete isolation for three or four years,” Mr. Prouty says. In some communities where teachers are sparse, he says, programs should be put into place where the most appropriate community member teaches children until a trained teacher is available to come.
“Everybody has a right [to education], so we should commit to giving every child whatever we can right now,” he says.
‘Hooked to school’ for a better future
Getting through primary school is seen as one of the first steps in breaking the cycle of poverty that has held back generations of Africans from escaping the situations in which they were born. If students can escape the systemic barriers that have forced peers and previous generations to drop out and fend for food and money, many will go on to further education and better lives than their parents before them. While some children, like those in Narok South, have a benefactor to make this easier, it will take a concerted, targeted effort to reach marginalized students across the continent.
In some of the poorest areas of rural and urban Kenya, students who have overcome situational adversity recognize just how important education is to making a career – and a healthy life – a reality.
“They believe education will take them out of poverty and give them a bright future,” Mr. Muga says in Paila’s office in Kibera. “That is why they are hooked to school.”
In the Korogocho slum to the north, Ngunyumu teacher Mr. Moywaywa says school helps his pupils learn how to be competitive both in and out of the classroom. At school, “We are giving hope for the children,” he says. “If they don’t get an education, they can’t compete anywhere.”
His student Violet, who escaped a home that didn’t want her to get an education, wants to be a journalist, to speak for others who have lost their voice. “Some day, when I have achieved my dream, I can present news that people are being abused and denied their rights.”
“With knowledge, you can get far,” says Grade 8 Ngunyumu student Daniel Vaati. With education, he wants to touch the sky. “When I finish school, I want to be a pilot. When I see a plane passing, I wish to be like him.”
Many students recognize it’s their key to escape the choices people have to make when they’re stuck in poverty. “When you go home [to the slum], you see those who have not learned. They do things I do not understand,” says Patrick Kamau, a Grade 8 Ngunyumu student. “They don’t think when they are doing something.”