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Posted on January 5, 2017

The unusual dynamics of school fee payment (or non-payment) in a Kenyan school

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As we trudged through Kivani Secondary School’s third term student attendance records, one absenteeism after another greeted us. Per our analysis in preparation for Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with selected parents and guardians at the school, the average student missed about 13% of class time. I didn’t give it much thought then.

But on this Wednesday morning in mid-September 2016 as we conducted the FGDs, I felt the urge to prod further as one parent after another responded in the affirmative that they typically do wait for their kids to be sent home from school that’s when they pay their fee balances. Surprisingly though, parents/guardians at all the 4 different FGDs seemed shocked and worried about this when we pointed out that the average student misses 5 days of class. 

My first reaction was how come the money suddenly became available as soon as the kids were sent home? I understand the occasional situation where a child comes from a poor background and sending them home doesn’t help. But why were parents waiting until the kids are sent home before they pay their fee balances?

A response by Mutua*, one of the parents at the school, though almost pitiful, caught my attention. He told us of how he ensured that he pays his daughter’s fee balance once she is sent home.

“Most of us parents in this school are manual laborers, so the kids act as exhibits to our debtors. When my daughter is sent home, I go with her to the shamba to demonstrate the seriousness of the matter to my employer!” He exclaimed.

When Syombua*, also a parent at the school, interjected telling us of how sometimes when one tells a contact by word of mouth what the fee balance is they think one is lying; I pulled my seat closer.

“The first time I received an SMS from the school that my son was being sent home, I forwarded it to my brother in Nairobi only to learn that he had also received the same message from the school since my son had issued his details as a contact. He sent the fee balance the next day,” she said, “the SMS message directly from the school increased trust and transparency”.  

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One of the root causes of absenteeism, as we learned, is the parents/guardian’s dire economic situation. Families are getting by on very little money under circumstances where there are multiple demands on every shilling. A situation not unique only to Kivani.

A 2016 FinAccess Household Survey states that on average, Kenyan adults have about two sources of income, of which the median is Kshs 6,700.  Not to mention, the same study states that a third of Kenyan adults report agriculture as their main source of livelihood whereas only 12% are salary employed. This means that majority of Kenyans rely on an irregular/unpredictable income to manage regular expenses (e.g. School fees).

Although a 2015 Ministry of Education circular caps fees for day secondary schools at Sh9,374 per year while that of boarding schools is at Sh53,553 per year, most public schools still charge over and above the set fees limits in blatant disregard of the guidelines, which is beyond the reach of most parents and guardians. 

One consequence of incomplete fee payment is that schools send students home until they make the payments. Sometimes even the remaining students who have completed their fees are not taught because of the meagre numbers. Absenteeism also means that the quality of what parents/guardians are paying for is diminished. Besides, no refunds are made for the days when the student is away.

As schools open this week and parents/guardians struggle to accomplish a rather huge feat of paying very high fees with very little money, school-based measures such as those implemented under the Flexipay project (e.g. small solutions in payments and SMS communication) may help ease the burden for some students.

For instance, the FGD respondents told us that they felt less embarrassed to make a small payment on M-PESA Paybill than in cash. “I would never bring any amount less than KShs 1,000 in cash to the teacher… but I don’t mind sending even 500 bob on M-PESA,” chuckled Jane*, a guardian to one of the students. Underlying issues of poverty and high fees, on the other hand, may require government controls (such as the school fee caps). 

FSD Kenya in partnership with Bankable Frontiers Associates'(BFA) implemented the Flexipay pilot project. Through the project, BFA helped Kivani Secondary School to set up a Paybill option as well supported the school in sending fee payment reminder messages to the students’ parents, guardians, and well-wishers. Paybill is a cash collection service by Safaricom that allows an organisation to collect money on a regular basis from its customers through M-PESA. The pilot project was initiated to test whether such mechanisms could reduce absenteeism for non-payment of school fees. 

Look out for our next blog that discusses in further detail what the FSD Kenya – supported Flexipay project was all about, what it sought to achieve and the rich learning gained from it.

Lois Eva Adongo is an Innovations Specialist at FSD Kenya. She can be reached on Twitter @LoisEvaAdongo.

*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity of participants.