Kenya is a country of 45 million with a literacy rate of 85%, among the highest in Africa. Education is nominally compulsory and free for primary school (eight years). Secondary school (four years) costs upwards of $300 a year (per capita GDP is $1,360), and slightly more than half the appropriate age cohort is enrolled. The best-established secondary schools are boarding schools, because at the time they were founded, high schools were few and far between and transportation was limited. Government-supported boarding schools now cost $500 or more per year, private schools roughly double that.
In spite of these costs, even the poorest families commonly struggle to educate their most promising children, often borrowing heavily and selling precious assets like land or cattle to pay the fees of the best schools for which their children qualify. Qualification is based on the national primary school final exam (KCPE). Top scorers nationwide are eligible for places in highly selective “national” government-supported secondary schools or in comparable private schools. The next highest scorers qualify for so-called “county” schools, and the rest—the vast majority—are consigned to lowly “district” schools, which may be all the students’ families can afford, no matter how well the students scored on the KCPE. A number of KenSAP students have wound up at district schools under just these circumstances.
Not surprisingly, in view of this hierarchical structure, most top scorers on the national secondary school exam (KCSE) come from national or county schools. The KCSE is administered each October to more than 500,000 Form Four students (high school seniors) throughout the country. Students take exams in eight subjects, most of which they have studied for four years. Their aggregate mark is based on seven subjects: English, Math, Kiswahili, two sciences and two additional subjects. About ½ of 1% of the students who take the KCSE score an aggregate or “mean grade” of “A plain” – the baseline qualification for all KenSAP applicants – while about 30% score C+ or better, which qualifies them for places in state-certified colleges or universities. Those who qualify and need government support to meet their expenses (about 95%) generally have to wait at least ten months after taking the KCSE before enrolling. It is during this gap period that KenSAP conducts its residential sessions.