NAIROBI, 18 February (IRIN) - Kibera is famous, not as a centre of learning, but as one of Africa's largest slums. The majority of Kibera dwellers have poor incomes and lack basic amenities such as toilets and clean water. But all is not gloom in the sprawling slum. A school in Kibera was last week hailed as a shining example of how children from poor communities can successfully access free primary school education.
Most families survive on small businesses such as selling vegetables in kiosks or roasting maize on the roadsides. As a result of the extreme poverty, many children in the neighbourhood have been forced to drop out of school each year for lack of fees.
However Ayany primary school is considered a model school in Kenya, where learning not only has been made affordable, but comes with quality thanks to an innovative "no cost or low cost" education approach adopted by teachers in the school, with the help of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The walls in each classroom are filled with cheap, but effective learning materials such as charts, drawings and illustrations designed by the pupils themselves with the help of their teachers. Lessons in the school are held in a manner that encourages pupils to directly participate or to stimulate their interest in learning.
According to Elisheba Khayerii, the school's head, Ayany school's classrooms have been turned into "stimulating environments" for both children and teachers. "Our stimulating classes are child centred and child friendly," she told IRIN.
NEW LEARNING APPROACH
This new learning approach was adopted to cope with the challenge of implementing the free primary education policy which the Kenyan government put in place in January this year.
Last week, UNICEF head Carol Bellamy visited the school to review the progress of the project. The aim of the so called "stimulating classrooms", according to Bellamy, was to ensure that the issue of quality basic education was addressed.
"I am optimistic that it [the free primary education policy] will get more kids to school," Bellamy told IRIN. "But let us not lose this opportunity to provide quality as well. The issue of quality is very important. That is why we have innovative ways to put in quality by being creative. It doesn't have to cost much."
"We think there is a will in the government to see the policy succeed. It is one of the reasons we are here," she added.
UNICEF was the first to provide external assistance to the new free education policy, donating US$2.5 million in the form of learning materials to be used in Kenyan schools. The funds were aimed at benefiting some 450,000 boys and girls from grade 1 to grade 3 in Nairobi and eight other districts in the country.
In addition, the UN agency supported the training of about 1,000 primary school teachers in October 2002 to help create the stimulating classrooms. UNICEF is also planning to train a further 5,000 teachers in the next few months.
PROBLEMS OF FREE EDUCATION
Free primary education has, however, not come easy in Kenya. Free primary education was one of the key election promises that the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) made before it came to power on 30 December 2002. As Education Minister George Saitoti pointed out, the implementation of the new policy, which began as soon as the NARC government was sworn in, has been "fraught with huge funding, administrative and logistical problems".
An estimated 1.5 million children who were previously out of school, turned up in January to attend classes, most of them seeking admission in the first grade, in response to the government's promises.
Now the government says it realises the free education policy cannot work without the help of various donors.
"We had no doubt at all that the move was going to be fraught with problems and challenges. The first week of implementation was not easy," Saitoti admitted. "But we have been greatly encouraged by the support and goodwill shown to us by the people of Kenya who have welcomed the challenge by enrolling their children in school."
To address the challenges that have emerged, the government has set up a task force, comprising several respected education experts in the country to work out a sustainable approach of implementing the policy. "We haven't embarked on this policy only to make reversals in the future," Saitoti said. "Also we will ensure that quantity does not compromise quality. Our commitment is to have this policy succeed."
LACK OF FACILITIES
At Ayany primary school, these problems have been magnified by lack of sufficient facilities to cope with the large number of children who turned up to benefit from the free education policy. The school is short of classrooms and has opted to use floor mats, as opposed to classroom desks, in order to accommodate more pupils.
It is difficult to tell the exact number of children enrolled in the school because more are still streaming in from the around the slum, although the official register indicates that some 1,700 children are attending, according to the head teacher.
Most of the school's 28 teachers say they are overwhelmed by the large number of children who have turned up. Most classes, which have a capacity for 40 pupils, now have to cope with over 100. As a way of coping, the school has introduced lesson shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
"It's not an easy job. We had to be trained to cope with the work ahead," Leah Asego, an art teacher at the school, told IRIN. "I took it positively. We trained other teachers. You cannot succeed if you do not enjoy your work."
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