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The challenges of public agency in public primary schooling: lessons from Kenya

Twaweza means “we can make it happen” in Swahili. Twaweza works on enabling children to learn, citizens to exercise agency and governments to be more open and responsive in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. We have programs, staff and offices across all three countries, and a world respected practice of learning, monitoring and evaluation. Our flagship programs include Uwezo, Africa’s largest annual citizen assessment to assess children’s learning levels across hundreds of thousands of households, and Sauti za Wananchi, Africa’s first nationally representative mobile phone survey.  We undertake effective public and policy engagement, through powerful media partnerships and global leadership of initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership.

As a learning organisation, it was necessary to sense-check the idea of public agency.  The thinking process for the initiative commenced in February 2016 with scoping missions in two counties, Migori and Baringo, and later to eight others (Kilifi, Busia, Embu, Trans Nzoia, Nyeri, Wajir, Narok, Nairobi).  The aim was to explore the concept of public agency, identifying situations where citizens were already acting together with local leaders to resolve shared challenges.  Here, the Twaweza team held conversations with local/district NGOs, county and district education officers (and other district-based officials), unpacking their understanding of the idea and any existing manifestations in their districts. The school meetings with head teachers and teachers explored how they interacted with education authorities and with parents, and what they thought about opportunities to deliberate on and shape decisions for their schools.

Following the discussions and exploration, we distilled several critical design parameters for the public agency pilot:

  1. Address an issue which can be traced through the entire system – it needs to be directly relevant to schools, but reflect a felt priority at ward and district levels, and also have resonance nationally.
  2. The issue should have a citizen voice component. This will likely be focused at the community level, but can also include the district and national (where Twaweza plays a role) levels. How might the various levels reinforce each other?
  3. It should be an issue for which there is possibility for change – in that it is already a topic of debate, concern and implementation.
  4. There should be multiple opportunities within the system where the issue can be tackled: the more windows of opportunity up and down the levels, the better.

The issue and location

After this process, the issue selected was that of increasing the learning time or contact hours in public primary schools, this can be referred to as the quantity of learning. The idea was that teachers, parents, learners and local leaders work collaboratively to increase the amount of time used for learning at school. This is in the context of official school teaching time prescribed by the ministry of education. The initiative, known as Husika, which translates into English as get involved, was born to bring together local level stakeholders (pupils, parents, teachers and leaders) to collectively find solutions to challenges facing the education sector in their communities using existing spaces and platforms (village barazas, parent meetings, school government).

In the end, two counties (Baringo and Kilifi) were selected for the pilot. 

The intervention design

The short-term hypothesis was that communities (teachers, local leadership, parents, pupils) around the focus schools will demonstrate increased interest and engagement in reducing pupil and teacher absenteeism to increase learning time. The pilot ran for one school term between January and April 2017.

Identified issues

  1. Issue 1: How do people perceive and describe absenteeism?
  2. Issue 2: Do people come together to solve education problems?
  3. Issue 3: What are the barriers to working together?

Key conclusions

The project revealed the following issues which merit attention when developing future interventions:

  • Most actors at the community level (teachers, parents and local leaders) felt that absenteeism of pupils was a problem. They pointed to lack of food (hunger) and water as the top two major factors responsible for pupils’ absence from school.
  • On the other hand, community actors do not think teacher absenteeism is a problem. However, this assertion differs from other empirical sources which actually show that teacher absenteeism is rampant in these regions. It appears that both parents and teachers are afraid to acknowledge this as a problem: teachers for fear of repercussions and parents for fear of their children being victimised in school.  

While most actors were of the view that the initiative was useful, they expressed the feeling that the time allowed for the pilot was inadequate. The initiative was implemented within a span of one term (four months) and at a time of prolonged drought, making community (parental) engagement difficult.

For more details on intervertion design, issues, findings and recommendations, read here.

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