The Bomet County government has rolled out a milk feeding programme for learners at Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) centres to boost enrolment and retention.
Officials want to address the needs of 56,000 young learners who take lessons mostly in primary schools.
There were 53,000 learners when the programme started earlier this year, but that number has risen by 3,000 in six months.
The statistics reflect only those in public schools that are benefitting, and exclude those in private schools as they have not been taken on board.
The scheme gobbles up Sh109 million yearly, according to available records at the county’s department of education.
The county initially expected to package the milk at the new Chebunyo milk cooling plant that was recently put up and equipped by the devolved government and World Vision but the plant has not started operating.
The Chebunyo cooperative society, which owns the facility, was yet to get the green light from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS), the Kenya Dairy Board and other government agencies to start operations.
As a result, the county has temporarily contracted the New Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) to package and supply it to the learners, who are fed twice a week under the programme.
The scheme borrows from the Nyayo milk supplied during the Kanu regime of President Daniel Moi that was popular among schoolchildren.
It was so popular that in the 1980s, some learners went to school only when milk was supplied and discontinued when there were shortages.
“We are seeking to address not only the issues of enrolment and retention, but also the nutrition of the children who come from diverse backgrounds. Malnutrition is a major issue in some parts of the county,” said Bomet Governor Hillary Barchok.
Prof Barchok said there has been a marked increase in the number of learners coming to school in the six months since the scheme was launched.
“We are seeking partnerships with various institutions and donors including Education International to ensure success and sustainability of the programme,” Prof Barchok said.
Some 200 boda boda riders will supply the milk to schools in the five sub counties of Bomet East, Bomet Central, Konoin, Chepalungu and Sotik.
“The feeding programme will also promote the dairy sector … in the county so that farmers can add value to their fresh produce before offloading it to the market. Most of the milk produced in Bomet is sold in its raw form to neighbouring counties,” Prof Barchok said.
Early childhood education is a devolved government function, while basic and higher education is funded by the national government in line with the Constitution adopted in 2010.
Bomet has constructed 315 ECDE centres, 75 are expected to be completed soon and several others are under various stages of implementation, said acting County Secretary Simon Langat, the Education chief officer.
There are 1,221 ECDE centres in the county, some using old and dilapidated facilities that the local government is seeking to phase out.
Some contractors have not handed over the facilities to the county as they are yet to be paid for the work done. The county treasury has promised to clear balances owed to contractors before the end of the current financial year.
“This is a noble programme that should be supported by all stakeholders as it lays a good education and health foundation for learners in the region,” said Richard Chebusit, chairman of the ECDE teachers’ association in the county.
“It will surely boost transition and retention with positive results being witnessed already.”
Mr Chebusit, who is also the Knut branch executive committee member, said the county should improve employment terms for ECDE teachers so they can offer better services in line with increased enrolment.
“As we focus on the pupils and improving their learning environment, the county government should also improve the welfare of the teachers. The rise in enrolment has provided challenges to the teachers with increased workload,” he said.
With the construction of new ECDE centres and the rolling out of the milk programme, there was a positive response from parents, said Kembu Ward Rep Joseph Kelong, the chairperson of the education committee.
“It was common for parents to enrol over-age learners in ECDE centres due to their reluctance to offer them an education, but what we have seen in the past few months is a situation where some are seeking to enroll under-age children,” said Mr Kellong, a former education officer.
Early childhood education had remained the most neglected element in the education sector though it lays the foundation for learners.
In some instances, children were taught under trees and makeshift structures, exposing them to safety and health risks.
But this started changing with the onset of devolution as resources were allocated and managed locally. As a result, communities have a major say on the projects through the public participation process.
Several counties have raised the number of ECDE teachers and employed them under permanent and pensionable terms, while those aged above 45 were taken on board under contracts. A person above 45 cannot be employed under permanent and pensionable terms with the retirement age set at 60.
Teachers’ union Knut has been pushing for ECDE teachers to be employed under the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) and their terms improved, arguing that they are hired as pre-school assistants.