From my observations based on the schools I have visited and the reports I have produced, student absences are a leading factor in the lower mean scores of class and individual performance.
What makes this much harder to address is the varying reasons for student absences, which despite being an issue across the board, varied considerably in terms of causation. Factors that contributed to this variance were geographical (pastural lands with nomadic herders), cultural (perception of girls in education, female circumcision), access to medical care (illnesses such as malaria, cholera, tuberculosis), logistical (distance to travel to school, conditions of travel).
From my observations, I found that the top 5 reasons for student absences were:
1. The parents pulled them out to preform work. This has varied from household tasks such as caring for siblings, to herding (high in Northern Kenya), and farming during a planting or harvest.
2. Road Safety. Some children travel great distances to attend day school if there isn’t access to an adequate institution in their community. I have talked to some who walk 7km each way. An enormous liability with this is the condition and safety of the road. In some of the communities I have visited, elephants and rhino on the road simply means the children are either hours late or decide to return home all together. For others, hazards includes young men waiting for girls walking home.
3. Illness. This is not a surprising contributor to student illnesses, and can run very high depending on communities and seasons (the rainy season can bring an influx of cholera, malaria, and typhoid, while the dry season can bring can increase instances of gastrointestinal complications). In concentrated urban areas, such as slums, the instances HIV and AIDS runs higher, and a general congestion of population means bacteria and viruses spreads much faster. This is exacerbated by the fact that these areas tend to lack facilities for access to clean water and basic hygiene
4. Culturally induced role of women. In many parts of the country, girls are circumcised at 12 and 13 years old, and are immediately thereafter presented as potential brides to men looking for a wife. When they reach this age, they are often pulled from school, which is seen as irrelevant in advancing that trajectory. Another issue, seen as minor though surprisingly disruptive in rural areas lacking basic hygienic materials, are the absences caused when girls are going through their menstrual cycle and stay home because they don’t have sanitary pads.
5. Poor standard at school. I encountered several classes at different schools with an unusually high absence rate that did not correspond to the general level of student absences at the school as a whole. What they did correspond with, however, was the absence rate of their corresponding teacher. This was particularly strong in the lower levels and ECD. One principal explained to me that the parents will often keep the children out of school, thereby avoiding associated costs, if the teachers are known for not showing up at the school.