President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday announced that the government will make secondary school education in public schools in Kenya free starting from 2019.

Kenyatta said his government was determined to ensure that all children in public primary schools transit into public secondary school without having to drop out due to financial problems.

The president said the recently released national budget increased the Free Day Secondary Education expenditure by 33 percent to 32 billion Kenyan shillings as it prepares to make universal secondary education free to ensure 100 percent transition from primary to secondary school.

“We are doing all this to improve the quality of education and ease the burden on parents by removing impediments of access to secondary education,” the president said.

President Kenyatta was speaking in Mombasa where he addressed the 41st Kenya Secondary School Heads Association (KESSHA) annual national conference.

He told the gathering of head teachers and principals that they must embrace prudent management of the funds.

“Prudence is not limited to funds disbursed by the Government – this includes funds collected from parents as well. As accounting officers in your institutions, you are fully responsible for management of the resources,” President Kenyatta told the secondary school heads.

He traced the introduction of Free Day Secondary Education back to 2008 when the government started paying a subsidy of Sh10,265 (US$102.65) for each student a year, saying the scaling up of the figure to Sh12,870 (US$128) in 2015 had seen a phenomenal growth in enrollment in high schools.

“The Free Day Secondary Education programme has paid handsome dividends – transition rates from primary to secondary schools have improved substantially from 60 percent in 2008 to 86.7 percent in 2015,” President Kenyatta said.

The central place of education in national development is crucial, the president said, adding that the government would continue to invest heavily in education.

On national examinations, the president said the government had undertaken far-reaching actions aimed at improving administration of the national tests.

“My government has embarked on critical changes in streamlining examination administration so that cases of cheating are eradicated,” the president said.

He said there would be harsh punishment for those who cheat and those who abet the vice, citing a 10-year jail term for the culprits.

The president said as the country takes a leap into national prosperity, Kenya requires a critical mass of knowledgeable and skilled citizens to deal with the challenges of the this century.

President Kenyatta challenged the school heads to sharpen the social skills and attitudes of the students saying: “The youth require guidance and understanding, not judgment and condemnation to be able to navigate through this turbulent period of their lives.”

Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i said his ministry would ensure that exams are administered in a credible manner to guard against cheating and other malpractices.

Matiang’i said his ministry is also improving infrastructure in schools so that students can learn in a conducive environment that would boost the success of education.

Other speakers at the event included Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, teacher unions’ officials and head teachers’ association chairman John Awiti.

Earlier in the day at State House, Mombasa, President Kenyatta had met with top officials of the two teachers’ unions, Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) and Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET) and the teachers’ employer, the Teachers Service Commission.

Kenyatta applauded the two unions for the recent signing of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Teachers Service Commission which put to rest years of disruptive strikes by teachers over their salaries.

Kenyatta praised the landmark agreement that covers 2013 – 2017, saying for the first time there was a platform on which future discussions and negotiations between the employee (unions) and the employer (TSC) would be held.

He added: “As you will recall, a few months ago I asked the TSC and the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) to sit together as reasonable people and find a way forward in establishing a harmonious relation in the education sector.”

The CBA, signed on Tuesday, introduces, among other things, an alternative dispute resolution mechanism that will end the perennial strikes that have dogged the education sector in the past.

The head of state pointed out that harmonious relations between the TSC and teachers’ unions cannot exist in an environment of confrontation. The two must look for a way that will ensure the education of Kenyan children is not put at risk, especially during their crucial time when they are doing their exams, he said.

President Kenyatta also assured the teachers as well as other public servants that his government was committed to safeguarding their welfare.

TSC Chairperson Lydia Nzomo said the CBA protects the pupils by ensuring that they learn in an environment where there is industrial harmony.

Union officials said that for the first time teachers have a pact with their employer that fully protects their rights.

KNUT Secretary General Wilson Sossion and Chairman Mudzo Nzili said the successful implementation of the CBA would entrench the tripartite relationship between the government, the TSC and the KNUT to deliver high quality education.