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Private solutions to public problems are always costly – Kellie’s Boss

This post wouldn’t be up if I didn’t have a niece who recently joined Standard One. I’ve always been of the school of thought that private school is the best option and I would do all it takes to have my child(ren) attend the best private schools money can buy.

Then two things happened:

  1. My niece joined Standard One, and I happened to be at their place for two days and got to observe her schedule. She lives in South B, the school is in town, but the 5 year old has to be up by 5am so she can leave the house to catch the school bus by quarter to 6, spend a full day in school, come home at 5pm looking so stressed and weary. It hurt to see this.
  2. I saw this.  Schooling at Pembroke is equivalent to one small car every term.

And it got me thinking, and discussing with everyone, why education is so costly in terms of money and effort for our children and what we can do about it. A discussion with my boss during one of his visits spawned this post.

He says that the private sector has got to stop solving public problems with private solutions as it’s costly. It results to parents who work 14 hour days to make enough for private school fees , and children who are stressed trying to keep up. We’re introducing our children to the rat race when they’re 5 years old.

What can we do different with the education system?

Is it possible for our public schools to be ‘good enough’ for our children? Why are public schools underfunded, and can that be solved by private individuals?

Walk with me for a minute.

Lets imagine we have 1,000 households in the Kilimani Area who spend on average Kshs 100,000 per household on private school fees per term, and the children spend about 2 hours daily on the road, an unaccounted for cost.

Assume each family is within walking or reasonable driving distance from St Georges Primary School, once a star performer but now reasonably run down.

If these families instead spent half of what they’re currently spending on rehabilitating St Georges, putting up proper administration and systems, would it be good enough for their children? Which public school wouldn’t thrive with an income base of Kshs 50 million per term?

Is it simplistic thinking? Maybe, but I feel if the private citizens were to get a bit more involved in the running of this country, then life would get less costly for us.

  1. Muchiri Nyaggah March 16, 2011 at 8:55 am Reply


    Glad to see your blogging mojo is back 🙂

    There’s definitely no discounting the positive effect citizens can have on public education if we take a keener more active interest in our schools and how they are run. That said, good education systems have good curriculum but also have well paid, highly motivated teachers. The net result of the latter is a teaching community drawn from some of the brightest individuals in society.

    So, other than putting good money into the schools, we need to make being a teacher cool again. That will play an important part in keeping our good money turning into bad.

    • Kellie March 16, 2011 at 9:35 am Reply

      Thanks so much for your comment, the question begs then, how do we make teaching cool?

      That said, the teachers we have aren’t too bad. My Mom, currently pursuing her MBA is a primary school teacher (special education), and the one problem she and other even over qualified teachers have is facilities and a dedicated support system such a BOD.

      I think schools can even motivate the teachers by introducing bonus systems away from the meager TSC pay.

  2. kaboro March 16, 2011 at 9:03 am Reply

    You took the words right out of my mouth! It’s something that has perplexed me for a while! I was in a primary school that was, from where we lived, a 30 odd minute walk away. Back in the 80’s, your suggestion was the standard model. Everyone used to go to the local primary school and the school was a community affair. If we needed a bus/pool/hall etc, there was a fund raiser/walk whatever, old boys pitched in, and the schools infrastructure was upgraded. The model actually works. A school like say, St Georges, can actually be leased out to an educational trust of sorts, to run, and the excessive funds can be used to put up a much needed school in say Kawangware. The people around Saint Georges can comfortably pay 40,000 KES for fees. A good chunk of that cash will go into building schools in other places… At the end of the day, a model can be found for it to be sustainable. The private schools are expensive for several reasons but mostly, profiteering and high real estate costs.

    • Kellie March 16, 2011 at 9:36 am Reply

      That’s true. For every wealthy estate, we have a slum right next to it and the trust model would work beautifully. Great food for thought Kaboro!

  3. kachwanya March 16, 2011 at 9:16 am Reply

    Nice to see you blogging again.
    I think our attitudes towards anything public is that it is the work of the Government to make it work. That is why “Naomba serikali” is like a national anthem. It is high time people forget completely that the Government does exist and concentrate in making things around them work.

    A friend of mine told me a story of how for a long time she thought that she went to private school only to realize later that the school was public. The parents around the school applied your logic and made the school the best they could. And yet the money used was far less than what they would spent on private schools.

    But again many great public schools went to the dogs after the introduction of free primary schooling. Capacity problems. Now the bigger question is how do you control the numbers and still remain free for all?

    • Kellie March 16, 2011 at 9:39 am Reply

      Kachwanya, thanks for the comment. In my opinion, the only way the government and politicians will ever make a difference is if they realise they’re irrelevant. If we get to a point where we’re running the country and instead of politics every 7pm news, all we see are success stories of citizens making a difference.

      I think applying Kaboro’s idea even within the school would work to make it free or quasi free. We could also borrow from the US system where schooling is funded locally. I don’t have a child, but if systems worked, I wouldn’t mind if a portion of my tax or even additional local tax that goes to developing the education system.

      By the way, even as it is, education isn’t free for all. Parents in most schools still pay development fees and a fee for extra tuition.

  4. Kirsty March 16, 2011 at 10:13 am Reply

    Great article Kellie!
    We work with a CBO in Kibera that gives afterschool tuition to kids. Many of these students attend informal schools during the day where resources are limited and teachers unqualified. The afterschool project has a moderately equipped resource centre and library and a group of volunteer “teachers” many of whom have only completed Form4 themselves.
    Their top candidate last year scored 398 and another 25 students scored over 300. The centre is running classes in drama, film-making, art, dance and poetry as well as having it’s own football team.
    You don’t need all the money that people are spending on private schools – you need kids and parents to have the right attitudes and people willing to spend quality time working with the students. From interviewing some of the candidates one of the most important things for them is an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions or for something to be repeated if they don’t understand – I don’t know that that would be the case in private schools where image is all-important.

    … my opinion anyway 🙂

    • Kellie March 16, 2011 at 11:03 am Reply

      Thanks Kirsty. I agree on parents having the right attitudes. My early to mid primary education was in a local primary school where we went to school barefeet. It was a normal Kenyan primary school where teachers do the bare minimum, but my parents were heavily involved in my education.
      It’s not the chief reason but most parents are going for private schools because it’s the easier route. They ‘parent’ for you.

      Great work you’re doing, I will pay you a visit as soon as I’m mobile.

  5. BintiMswahili March 16, 2011 at 10:49 am Reply

    The state of our public education system is a pet peeve. I live with 2 cousins in primary school, and it’s always frustrating watching their mother struggling to get them decently educated at a public school.

    Private solutions are good, but I also think we should start with getting more involved with how the public schools are run at the moment. Do we know if the funds, albeit minimal, being distributed to these schools are being used correctly? Before we set up trust funds and all we need to revamp the whole management systems in schools. I have seen head teachers in these schools living way above average on supposedly meager TSC salaries.

    I think by ignoring the government, it would mean we are sort of condoning them shirking their responsibilities. I think what we need more is to make them more accountable, but start on a grassroot level, like I said above with the Head teacher, to maybe Education officer, all the way up. This way we can make sure that the money is channeled correctly and then we can add on to the deficit. I think the whole County system provides a great opportunity to help deal with issues and making them more manageable, a county at a time.

    Great article Kellie, we need to have more forums to discuss such issues.

    • Kellie March 16, 2011 at 11:07 am Reply

      I agree with you totally. One thing that might be difficult to execute is to revamp the system as is. It would be easier to get one school with a ‘forward looking’ head teacher and model this, then widen the circle slowly. Some schools have done it, but of course that doesn’t make news 🙂

      My problem with engaging the government is from past experience, the agenda changes midway. That’s what’s happened with our civil groups, but if we can find a way of doing this without getting embroiled in issues that plague all mass initiatives, maybe it will work.

  6. Buggz79 March 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Great discussion you have going on here.

    As a parent going through the same journey, I do relate with the points shared above, more so on increased parental participation in the education process and holding government institutions accountable for the resources they oversee.

    I like what vison-africa is doing. Perhaps the next step is to take the teachers through the techniques they need to become more effective. The syllabus may be fixed but delivery is what determines if the kids actually learn or not.

    I know there was an initiative the Dr Griffin was spearheading before he died of replicating the Starehe boys model. I’m not sure where that is now but i feel it could be one way to start the change. All it takes is a small group of inspired and committed change agents to completely change the face of education.

    Simplistic I know. But then…most things that really matter are.

  7. wakariuyu March 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm Reply

    The same topic came up after the recent development of national schools quotas.
    the government or shld i say the policy makers have failed totally on the education front..during our times the top schools were a product of public private partnership(ppp) olympic primary school,moi nyeri complex..and many more..with free education the able mwananchi enrolled his/her kid in private school effectively creating leaving the poor on their own.,,the poor can not motivate teachers..

    And from the look of things this trend will catch up with secondary schools..and as we know it is ailing our unis….mnyonge hana haki, haki ya mungu

  8. Kirima March 17, 2011 at 5:09 pm Reply

    Great topic going on here
    I was lucky to have been in a great public school and what used to make it special was the involvement of the parents in making the school great. I believe leaving everything to the government is a big mistake there needs to be some community involvement in the public schools and if well run they can rival the private schools which are mostly business enterprises.
    One aspect that is not often talked about in the private vs public debate is that not all private schools are ‘High Cost schools’ there is a big proportion of kids in the low income areas (slums) and remote areas learning in low cost private schools which are very basic with poor facilities and untrained teachers but they serve a need for these people, there is deep hunger for education in this country which is positive but it has also given rise to alot of opportunity for profiteers as well. just consider what is the proportion of that 100,000 per term is used in actual education (books, teachers etc)

  9. Shaftcentral March 25, 2011 at 11:15 am Reply

    This is a topic i hold at heart. Looks like Kellie we made your foot imobile temporarily but left your mind and fingers on the run.

    People have had great ideas that still depend on the systems, and community good will to work. Culture in society has had the greatest impact on our lifestyles. Someone called us pecuiliar .. i kinda agree. We are a society of impune , impantient people hoping to reap the highest returns from the least input.

    At times i joke that it starts at age 1. Ever watch a baby that age wanting to play with something so much as to throw a tantrum for it, even to dance in mud? Thats us.

    All these suggestions are a great deal superb. I beg we rally a culture change( i like the ungwana initiative- kudos Philip Kisia this guys has been phenomenol).
    E.g. Mindsets for suppliers to these to be public schools not wanting to see a relative in the procurement office so as to ease the supply of non spec products, dedicated accounts officers not keen to reap a little from an upcoming project so much that they do a pool of friends bidding on something supposed to be open tender, the district development committee willing to openly buid structures for 3 million as opposed to 7 million to cater for ‘concerned parties’ And generally people being patient to wait for the next committee meeting for a decision rather than convening a nyama choma get together to decide what next onthe expenditure list to grab!

    Above all people being articulate in follow ups, review, and accountability so that these decisions made along the way are well informed, fair and prudent. At that point, some turning sround will happen …most definetly.

  10. coldtusker November 3, 2011 at 9:43 pm Reply

    What you are advocating can work… but it is a Private Solution.

    1) Will you exclude those who cannot pay 50,000/- per term? [So the only difference is that the fees are 50% of the current school]

    2) The current facilities need an ‘immediate’ cash investment. Who will make it?
    [A private school (as an investment) will either make it at the beginning of the development or do so incrementally. A parent who will send 3+ kids (with a gap of 2 years) to the school might be OK paying a development fee but not someone who has only 1 kid from Std 6-8. Essentially, parent #2 is subsidizing #1]

    3) Where do kids whose parents can’t afford 50,000/- go? If they do get a ‘discount’ then what happens when some cheapskate parents claim poverty?
    [We know some of neighbours who cry ‘poor’ when contributions to common projects are required yet spend plenty on new clothes & cars]

    What is required is a Voucher System that gives every kid the chance to shop around different schools.

    All schools should be privatized & have to accept vouchers (upto the limit) but do expect some schools to ask for a ‘top-up’ i.e. they can charge higher fees. Oh & max vouchers per ‘family’ = 3 in a lifetime!

    Will it create different different bands/tiers? Yes, but that is already a problem! We are not compounding it but improving the situation by letting the vouchers be the currency that education providers fight over.

  11. Chrenyan July 6, 2012 at 2:14 am Reply

    This is a great discussion to stumble on.

    First of all, I agree – private solutions are generally expensive. However, a number of really great private solutions have also been rather helpful (e.g. Safaricom in telecoms).

    The solution you are suggesting may be quasi-private, but it is not uber-expensive. A set of parents determined to see their children do well is likely to be more effective than almost any amount of cash. Many of us can attest to that at a personal level.

    It’s great to see not just problems being discussed, but also solutions. That’s rare and different.

    Also impressed by Kirsty’s/Vision-Africa’s work in Kibera. I got involved in a project there, but it is not as easy as it sounds. If you guys are managing those kind of results, hats off to you.

    • kellie July 6, 2012 at 4:37 am Reply

      Chrenyan you’re right, if only parents got more involved. The sad bit is that most of us are so obsessed with ‘moving on up’, that the thought of transforming a local primary school isn’t fore, earning enough to afford a ‘group of schools’ is a priority. School seems to represent more than just learning, it’s prestige and a sign of success.

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About the Author

When I’m not here writing, I run Lattice Training, where we offer customized training solutions for businesses of all sizes, from startup entrepreneurs all the way to large corporations.
The aim of this blog is to simplify personal finance. I write about budgeting, personal finance, management and doing business in Kenya, in a way that everyone will understand.

If you have questions or would like to get in touch with me, leave your details on the form below, and I will get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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