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Grade 6 students cram into desks at Pimbiniet Primary School in Kenya’s Narok South district.Josh O’Kane/The Globe and Mail

At Pimbiniet Primary School, the textbooks are tattered. Students, three or four to a desk, tug the books back and forth, tearing pages as they try to get a glimpse of what they're learning.

"They can really struggle," says headmaster Thomas Maritim – though not for any lack of enthusiasm. They just all want the books for themselves. "It can lead to discipline cases where pupils may be fighting for the book."

As Mr. Maritim teaches Grade 6 pupils about agriculture, his students lean forward, taking in the importance of different tethering techniques. Enthusiasm infects all of the school's students, who want to become leaders in their communities when they grow up. "A doctor," says Grade 8 student Miriam Chebet. "Mechanical engineer," says Benard Towet, in Grade 7.

The classroom is cramped and the resources thin, but Pimbiniet is one of Free the Children's 16 beneficiary schools in Kenya's Narok South district in the Maasai Mara, dotted with farming communities and pastoral families. Yes, their textbooks are torn. No, it's not always easy to pay all of the teachers. But thanks to their benefactor, the schools have new buildings, clean water, high girl enrolment, and students who aren't going completely hungry.

Not all schools in sub-Saharan Africa can count themselves so lucky. Just four hours east of Pimbiniet, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, staff at the Raila Educational Centre has a harder time keeping students in class. The school is in Kibera, Africa's largest slum, and teachers face often-insurmountable odds to keep classrooms full.

All students in the country have access to free primary education, but the realities of life in Kibera regularly subvert students' chances to break the cycle of poverty. Teaching staff is thin; many young girls get pregnant and leave school, often before Grade 7; others leave school to earn money for their families; and the curriculum has been reduced to subjects that have formal examinations, creating barriers for students who might excel at arts or sports, but can't cope with traditional rote learning.

"We must thank God for giving us the children, but these children have challenges," says George Owich Muga, Raila's deputy head teacher. "Many start [school], but very, very few pupils go the full stretch, which is a big problem."

The number of primary-school-aged children who don't attend school in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by one-quarter since 2000, to 30 million, through the efforts of governments, foreign aid and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some countries are approaching universal enrolment in primary education, including Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Others are nowhere near that level – including Nigeria, where 10 million children don't go to school. Across the continent, many out-of-school children are from already-marginalized groups, including girls and ethnic or linguistic minorities whose parents may not feel comfortable with local schools.

Internationally, there are many efforts to help. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Canada sent $2.3-billion in aid to sub-Saharan Africa – a number that has only risen slightly for the past few years, but accounts for nearly 40 per cent of total foreign aid spending. Meanwhile, Canadian groups such as Free the Children work to foster environments to make basic education easier to access. And the global community as a whole has set a series of goals to ensure that every child, especially on this marginalized continent, can get a proper education.

But those blanket goals don't account for the realities faced by many school-aged children in Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region where hundreds of different ethnic groups coexist in more than 50 countries and poverty is rampant. The continent needs a new, non-blanket approach; now, experts say, it's time to craft goals to target help for the most marginalized children.

A broken promise

The world is on track to fail – for the second time – at meeting its self-imposed deadline to attain "education for all" children worldwide.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization first launched the Education for All movement at a conference in Thailand in 1990, promising, among other things, "universal access to learning," by 2000. That year, in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, the group set a new deadline, 2015, for its six major goals, which include universal primary education, a 50-per-cent improvement in adult literacy and improved access to quality of education.

Worldwide, the number of primary-school-aged children out of school fell to 57 million in 2011, from 102 million in 2000, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. While that figure has been cut nearly in half, there was much less impact in sub-Saharan Africa, and it's widely believed that, once again, these goals won't be met in time.

Even with a sudden spurt of enrolment, it would be impossible to reach universal primary education by 2015, says Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, an independent team that keeps track of education progress on behalf of UNESCO.

"There's definitely a need to complete the unfinished business," Ms. Rose says by telephone from Paris. She admits that previous efforts at getting children into schools might not have addressed the students who needed the most attention.

"There's a need for goals that track progress by inequality and by the most disadvantaged group," she says. "The greatest failings of the current goals is that they look at averages and mask the real problems. At the same time, it's not just a case of not being able to complete school, but actually learning while there."

Africa's sub-Saharan region is usually considered as a separate entity from North Africa, where the the Sahara Desert's great divide has made it more geographically and culturally aligned with the Arab world. Globally, sub-Saharan Africa has had the biggest struggle in getting more children enrolled in primary school – the number of out-of-school children has hovered around 30 million for the past five years, with a full third of those children living in Nigeria.

"Despite widespread economic growth on the continent," Ms. Rose says, access to education "has still not really made it to the poorest in those countries."

Bob Prouty, lead education specialist with the World Bank in Washington, says that future action on education might best address the demand side of the equation – why parents aren't sending their children to school – rather than simply focusing on supply by building schools and hiring teachers.

"You have to do the hard slogging, rolling up your sleeves to figure out who these kids are and why they aren't there," Mr. Prouty says. "There will inevitably be kids on the margins."

School as a second thought

When Violet Akinyi's mother died, she was left with her father and his new wife, who wasn't interested in seeing her get an education.

"The woman was so cruel," Violet says. "She always made me do all the house chores – to fetch water, to look for firewood. ... That really made it difficult to go to school."

Violet's aunt eventually took her from her village to Nairobi, where she is now a Grade 8 student at Ngunyumu Primary School in the city's Korogocho slum. "I'm really grateful," she says. "Many people are struggling."

That includes many of the children that are supposed to be in her school. Ngunyumu is a stone's throw from the Dandora dump, Nairobi's only landfill, and the parents of Korogocho will regularly – sometimes daily – send their children to pick through the garbage, finding items to sell on the side of the slum's roads so their families can afford to live.

Some barriers to getting an education, like school quality, distance to school and enrolment fees, are gradually shrinking as new facilities are built and governments abolish school fees. In some lucky communities, like Narok South in Kenya, charities and NGOs are building self-sustaining schools for communities to replace tattered structures (and sometimes, literally the shade of a tree) to give kids room to learn. And enrolment rose in countries including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana, for instance, after they abolished fees, according to the United Nations.

But most communities don't have benefactors like Free the Children, who not only build new schoolrooms, but develop self-sustaining programs with communities to make students healthier and more easily able to attend school. And cutting fees addresses only one barrier to education. It doesn't stop the cycle of poverty for slum children who need to pick garbage, or children in rural communities who need to walk a kilometre or more to get water for their families.

Many students survive on one meal a day – if that – and can't justify going to school unless food is served; otherwise, their time is better spent finding it themselves.

And while higher enrolment numbers look good on paper, it doesn't guarantee those students are getting educated. South Narok's Pimbiniet Primary School isn't alone in needing more textbooks, for instance: While some countries including Mali and Niger have enough books, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics finds that there is only one reading text for every 11 students in Cameroon, and one math book for every 13 students in the Central African Republic.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the primary-aged dropout rate is 44 per cent – the highest of any region across the world, UNESCO says. "If kids don't learn the basics, parents start wondering what the reason is they're sending their kids to school," Ms. Rose says.

The staff at Ngunyumu Primary School in Korogocho fight the odds by serving lunch every day to students – some of whom take extra home for their families – and developing a robust series of after-school activities that include everything from martial arts to violin lessons.

By putting emphasis on passion and excelling, says Ngunyumu gym teacher Gilbert Moywaywa, students who might not succeed at formal education gain structure and discipline – particularly boys, whose numbers dwindle in upper grades as they pick garbage or find other ways to earn money for their families.

Serving food and providing non-traditional learning opportunities have proved a big boost for the school, Mr. Moywaywa says. "School enrolment is increasing because dropouts are coming back."

Marginalization of girls

Teachers are dealing with dropouts at the Raila Educational Centre in Kibera, too.

"Girls start disappearing in upper primary," says Mr. Muga, the deputy head teacher.

By the time students reach Grade 8 – the end of primary school in Kenya, and the point at which the country's students take a national exam required to enter secondary school – about one-third of the girls who started school there have usually dropped out. "There is a serious disparity," he says.

Raila's students, many of whom are orphans, already face enormous barriers because of their surroundings in Kibera. But the cycle of poverty is even more difficult for girls to escape there, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, as social expectations continue to weigh down their chances to get adequate educations.

If universal primary education is to be achieved, it's going to require measures to make access more equitable for girls, to help them escape poverty and become functioning members of democratic societies.

Ms. Rose, of the Global Monitoring Report, says that getting more girls into school has been "one of the successes of the past decade" worldwide but that much work is left to be done, particularly on this continent, where girls have continued to account for 55 per cent of out-of-school students since 2000.

At Raila, many girls who quit before completing Grade 8 do so because they've become pregnant. Even if it's unlikely they'll go on to further education, the school encourages them to complete their national exam. "Anything you can do to encourage learning during such a struggle," Mr. Muga says.

"We're talking about girls who are 13, who function as women in society in those cultures," says Nora Fyles, head of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative Secretariat. The risk of rape and violence holds some families from sending girls to school – or, worse but just as likely, they stop attending school after it's happened.

"There's an expectation and importance for them to play a sexual or reproductive role in society. ... It limits their attendance, performance and completion," Ms. Fyles says.

Girls may also be held back from school because of opportunity costs at home – without keeping girls back, families in some communities are unable to complete household work. In these cases, Ms. Fyles says, girls can be kept at home even when there are no true upfront barriers.

Other families, particularly in conservative communities, may hold girls back from schools because they're uncomfortable with the environments. Girls from rural pastoral communities have the most difficult time completing their education. "Girls in that context are still living a very traditional life, so the expectation by families for them to stay in school are still very slim," Ms. Fyles says.

The urban-rural divide exposes the fact that gender tends to be related to other categories of exclusion from opportunity, including education. Worldwide, for instance, 12 per cent of urban-dwelling boys are out-of school, versus 24 per cent of girls in rural communities, according to data from 57 countries from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

"Gender inequality tends to be embedded in other kinds of disadvantages," says the World Bank's Mr. Prouty. Well-to-do urban girls are more likely to complete education on par with boys, but girls who are disabled, poor or members of minority groups face the biggest struggles of all children.

In these cases, a girl is "fortunate if she's able to attend a full year in her lifetime," Ms. Fyles says.

Girls who don't attend or drop out are already inherently disadvantaged, too. "Boys can achieve a lower level of education [and still enter] the labour market more than girls," she says.

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.

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."