THE government is to allow poor parents to pay secondary-school fees in farm produce or livestock in lieu of money.
It is the first time a Kenyan government has allowed fees to be paid in kind since formal education was introduced early in the 20th century.
Secondary fees are expensive in Kenya: pound;90 a year for day school, plus pound;50 for uniform and materials. This is a heavy burden in a country where annual wages can be as little as pound;300 and many are unemployed.
It will cost a peasant farmer at least 70 chickens or 18 90kg bags of maize to send a child to day school and 115 chickens, or 26 bags of maize, to send a child to boarding school. Schools will also be required to start income-generating projects to raise money to meet their costs.
Parents will also be able to offer services to schools as part payment. Last week, education permanent secretary Japheth Kiptoon directed headteachers to accept such offers from parents who cannot afford the fees.
The government is worried by the high drop-out rates in secondary schools caused by the fees. So far, only 27 per cent of eligible children in Kenya transfer to secondary schools and the government target of raising this to 75 per cent by 2005 looks hard to achieve.
However, paying in kind even for one child will still be beyond the reach of most families. A typical family might produce just eight bags of maize a year and has seven children. Many families have no land of their own and so grow very little maize.
Mr Kiptoon said the ministry has no money to give grants to schools. The government is spending 87 per cent of its pound;500 million annual education budget on teachers' salaries, he said, leaving little to support pupils. Consequently, this has raised households' spending on education.
Oxfam estimates that parents pay 70 per cent of the total cost of education in Kenya. "The situation has significantly contributed to low transition rates from primary to secondary among children from poor households," said Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's senior adviser on finance and social policy issues.
With high unemployment rates even among graduates, poor families have stopped taking education seriously. They believe they will earn more from children's labour than buying education because there is no guarantee of an income at the end of it.