Education has emerged as a leading theme in the campaign for Kenya's hotly contested presidential election on 4 March. The quality of education, the lack of teachers and making sure children progress to secondary school all came up in the first presidential debate on 11 February.
While these important issues deserve to be addressed, there is one that goes deeper, because it keeps so many children out of school: the stark inequalities faced by large groups in Kenyan society, including pastoralists, urban slum dwellers and refugees.
Kenya has made some great strides in education over the past dozen years. When the government officially abolished primary school fees, many more children were able to attend. The net enrolment ratio surged from 62% in 1999 to 83% in 2009, as we found in the 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report.
Kenya is now looking beyond primary school to universal secondary education. But primary school is still a distant dream for many children - especially girls and young women, as we highlighted on a blog a year ago. Kenya has 1 million children out of school, making it one of the 10 countries in the world with the highest numbers out of school, as we show in our fact sheet on education in Kenya. If you are from a rich household in Nairobi, your chances of getting into school are extremely high, whether you are male or female. But if you are poor and live in the pastoralist North-Eastern region, it's a very different story, and even more so if you are female.
Of poor females living in the North Eastern region in Kenya aged 7 to 16, 44% have never been to school, according to our World Inequality Database on Education.
Percentage of Kenyan 7- to 16-year-olds who have never been to school, 2008
Some of Kenya's lowest enrolment ratios and largest gender gaps are found in the 10 most arid districts, inhabited predominantly by pastoralists. In the 2010 EFA Global Monitoring Report, we found that net enrolment was less than 30% for boys and 20% for girls in the three worst-performing districts. Pastoralists have to move with their herds, so the government needs to find flexible and more mobile ways to meet their education needs - more urgently now than ever, as climate change forces herders to travel farther and farther in search of water.
To the government's credit, it produced a policy framework on nomadic education after we published the 2010 EFA Global Monitoring Report. It continues to largely ignore the education rights of another large group whose needs we explored in that report, however: urban slum dwellers.
About a third of Nairobi's population - around 1 million people - live in slums. These settlements are deemed "illegal," so they are not recognized in government plans for schools. Household poverty, poor child health and nutrition and extensive child labour provide formidable barriers to education. Most parents in slums have to pay for poor-quality private schooling, due to the lack of government schools there, while non-slum children have access to free government education, as identified in a study by the African Population and Health Research Centre.
Refugees make up the third group in Kenya that faces huge barriers to education, as I described on this blog in 2011. Kenya is host to some of Africa's largest refugee populations, many of whom fled from wars in Somalia and Sudan, but the government has been unable to support their education, as we outlined in the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education.
When I visited the sprawling Dadaab complex of refugee camps in northeastern Kenya in 2010, refugees told me they saw schooling as a top priority because "Education is the only thing we can take home." But their hopes and aspirations are not being met. The government needs to incorporate refugee education in its strategic planning, and put pressure on aid donors to make sufficient funds available on a multiyear basis.
Ensuring education for all means making special efforts to reach those who have been excluded in the past. Kenya's presidential candidates have a chance to show they understand that principle - by highlighting the education barriers faced by those who most need the government's help, especially rural girls, pastoralists, slum dwellers and refugees.