How much should early childhood education cost? For bespoke education, some Kenyan parents are willing to pay up to Sh2.7 million for children aged under seven years, in addition to extracurricular activities like learning how to ride a horse or playing musical instruments.
As incomes grow and more people born in financial hurdles seek a higher social status for their children, investing heavily in the early years education, which starts from one and half years to six years, has become the new luxury.
Carol Ondembo, a mother-of-two, has a daughter who attends an international kindergarten. For her four-year-old at Braeburn Imani International School, she pays Sh111,800 per term. By the time the child finishes kindergarten she will have paid more than Sh1 million and even spent more on primary, secondary and university education.
Mrs Ondembo says that it is not really about the amount of money spent on fees.
“There is more a parent pays for than a child getting education. We pay for a child to acquire good mannerism, get exposure that she would not have got in a normal school and learn in a pretty good environment. My daughter doesn’t feel like she is really in school because they play and explore, which sparks their curiosity to learn more. For instance, they are allowed to take bikes to school. The school has a bike track. The school assembly is also open, allowing parents to participate,” Ms Ondembo says.
However, most important, she says, is the size of the class.
“A class has between 10 to 12 children attended to by three teachers,” she says, adding that there is also a lot of engagement between the teachers and parents, which fosters learning.
On whether the money is too much for a young child, she says: “I went to school over 30 years ago. Obviously, the cost of education can’t be the same. I’m not sure I look at this in terms of money spent but more of how my daughter is embracing the learning process. And to that end, I am happy.”
Another parent whose son is in Year Four at Braeside Primary School joined the institution at the crèche level for half a day. This is a class for babies in the British curriculum where they are cared for during working days. For the six years that her son has been at the school, she has so far paid about Sh3.7 million and the cost keeps rising.
Last year, a survey found that Nairobi is the most expensive city in Africa for international schools, charging fees of up to Sh2.9 million a year, thanks to the high demand for international education.
Jane Mwangi, the Kenya Association of International Schools Head of Secretariat, says these institution are favoured because they provide curricula that are skills and competence based be it the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), International Baccalaureate (IB), French baccalaureate, Montessori or stand-alone curriculum. “In these schools, a child is their own competition. A teacher reports progress of a particular child and assessment is mostly summative as opposed to formative. That is, is a pupil able to perform a task? That is why the schools charge that much for that quality of education,” Ms Mwangi says.
“Despite the high fees, the pupils can read, write, express themselves, understand their bodies, go to the toilet unaccompanied and function independently than they could without this foundation,” she says.
These international kindergartens, which also court foreigners living in Kenya, have to hire qualified graduate teachers who are paid on average Sh100,000, invest in top-notch facilities akin to those in the US or UK, extras that are passed on to parents.
Keeping in mind the elite class as the target market, the schools have digital whiteboards instead of the common chalkboards, the play areas are rubber-tiled to prevent accidents and they have clinics with professional nurses unlike in the old days when a matron doubled up as the doctor.
“The cost of running the schools is too high. For instance, the toilets and other facilities have to be customised for the small children,” Ms Mwangi says.
For years, early learning was not the focus of the Education ministry and parents too. Parents and teachers started most private early year schools and it is this same gap that the international schools are trying to fill.
Sh220,000 for playschool
There are currently more than 40 institutions under the Kenya Association of International Schools and more investors are setting up elite schools. What parents favour in these schools is the focus on activities outside the classroom, which are an additional cost.
“It’s an entire lifestyle with play. Swimming is compulsory as it is considered a life skill, with other add-ons like horse riding, soccer training to help them identify the skills at early ages,” says Ms Mwangi.
Others include skating and enrolling at Swim Africa, a renowned programme for babies and toddlers to master the strokes and prepare them for competitive swimming.
“The extra-curriculum is good for their minds. They get to experience a lot and have a different approach to education. A child gets to appreciate why they are doing a certain activity rather than being told they have to do it,” says Ms Mwangi, who also has a child in an international school.
Kindergarten education starts at the age of three years, but some parents take their children to playschools and paying around Sh220,000 a year.
At playschool stage, children do sandpaper writing; practically learning without recognising and at the same time registering new things in their minds.
“At three years, they can start enhancing literacy and numeracy. While exiting kindergarten at six years, they can write story,” Ms Mwangi says.
The children are not given homework to avoid bogging down their minds with information.
Another reason that parents are opting for the international schools are the prevailing reservations about the conventional curriculum.
At Sabis International School in Nairobi’s Runda suburb, which is partly owned by Centum Investment, they use a stand-alone curriculum.
Sabis says their system prepares children, even from the early years, for a wide range of external exams, competing for spots in Western universities and eventually positions in multinational companies.
“We have our own education system that allows the children to compete with other students across the globe including the UK, US and UAE,” Robert Kleynhans, the Sabis director says.
“The system ensures that it is not bringing pressure to the children, but also gives them time to have fun,” he adds.
Children in Kindergarten One (KG1) are taught French by teachers who are native language speakers.
“A child must be three years old by October 1 in order to start KG1,” says Kate Jackson, Sabis senior admissions and communications officer.
“In KG2, they learn how to blend in order to prepare for intense reading. Being young, they have to be continually engaged through play. We have a racetrack, infant heated 13-metre swimming pool to learn to swim,” she adds.
Sabis charges tuition fee of about Sh670,000 per year for kindergarten. Besides the tuition fees, parents with children in KG1 and KG2 pay Sh28,072 and Sh37,700 respectively for books.
“Due to the structured curriculum, children are issued with books that are perforated to enable easy plucking of done work and facilitate the internal progress management and parent accessing after a week,” Ms Jackson.
In addition to the tuition fees and books, parents can pay for their children to eat a morning snack or lunch at the school lounge and for transport.
Given the intense competition to get a place in the international kindergartens, a deposit of about Sh100,000 is paid in advance.
However Ms Mwangi says the pricing of kindergarten education rarely translates to super profits for the school owners.
“Running a kindergarten is not a cheap affair. When you quantify it, you find the schools hardly make money from the kindergartens. Education as business is a labour of love. It can take 11 years or more to break even, and hence it has to be a long-term investment,” Ms Mwangi says.