Friday, July 25, 2008



The current wave of strikes and arson in schools is cause for concern. That the minister of education responds with setting up a commission is cause for greater concern. Commissions in Kenya have been taken to mean a temporary reprieve and buying time for the fire to wear itself out and be smothered and ashes dissipated. Schools unrest in Kenya at all levels is an epidemic that has been with us for a long time. What we haven’t done is to prescribe a permanent cure. We have always administered temporary relief balm soothing the swelling while the cancer beneath festers to break out again elsewhere.

Our boarding schools have been the biggest culprits of this menace. We need to address not only the causes but also come up with prescriptions for the cure. I am a product of day school. I went to a day primary school and a day high school and we never had a strike. The only boarding school I attended was for my A levels, and we had a strike. One of my children went to a day high school and they never had a strike, the other went to a boarding school and they had a strike. A local high school in my neighborhood was a day school for many years without any student problems, but from the time it became a boarding school, it has been characterized by strikes and acts of hooliganism frequently. This may not be scientific research but there is something to be said about boarding schools being more prone to student unrest and accompanying mayhem and destruction than day schools.

There are, however, some unique exceptions like Starehe. But by and large our boarding schools are breeding grounds for strikes. Our boarding schools are not cheap. The cost of maintaining a student there is sometimes beyond the means of most parents. The return on investment is not proportionate when you factor in the material, intellectual and sometimes human destruction that occurs there. We need to seriously look at the efficacy of boarding schools versus day schools. The days when boarding schools were established because the students could not commute daily are gone. With advancement in transportation, people are able to cover vast distances each day. We should do away with the boarding schools. This way we will promote our neighborhood schools and develop a sense of ownership and responsibility of the institution. Our children would be home each night and parents would take greater responsibility over their discipline and welfare.

Currently parents send their children to boarding schools, leave them with the principal and are not bothered to even pay the required fees for their maintenance. They abrogate their responsibility and expect the teachers not only teach but also feed, nurture, discipline, counsel, guide, train, control and educate without their full participation physically and materially. The pressure on school administration and teachers is excessive without adding performance contracts. For teachers to be able to perform effectively, they need the necessary resources. Apart from books and labs, they need the security and protection that comes from knowledge that their disciplinary actions will be upheld, their tenure is protected from political whims and their salaries will arrive on time. With this they will be able to exert measures and institute systems that work. But in most of our schools this is not happening. Let the parents take over the ownership of the schools.

Who owns Nairobi School, for example? Is it Abdi’s father from Garissa or Omwami’s father from Bungoma or Njoroge from nearby Kangemi? To instill a sense of security in our institutions we must instill a sense of ownership. The parents, the teachers and mostly the students must develop a sense of ownership of the institution. If this is lacking, destruction will continue as the destroyers will see it as them versus us, it is their property not our property. In a culture like ours where materialism takes precedent over reason, it may take time to instill such a sense of ownership but it is not impossible.

Students cannot develop a sense of ownership if they view their school as a prison. While maintenance of discipline and order is conducive to good learning, participation and ownership of the rules and regulations makes it easier to enforce discipline. When students are engaged in the formulation and implementation of discipline, the institution runs smoothly. The students become the owners of the rules and the teachers guide and supervise their implementation. When the students are empowered to handle lower level disciplinary infringements, the school is relatively at peace. This in no way absolves the school administration of ultimate responsibility, but it eases the workload of the teachers. But if the teachers are drunken with power mania, wanting to show whom the boss is, they end up stressing themselves and the school suffers. Teachers should always remember that the interest of the child is supreme. The child should be the focus of all decisions.

The schools are not there for the teachers or the parents, they are not there for the minister to set commissions, they are not there for the politicians to brag and blast, they are there for the education of our children. The basic question, indeed the only question, that should be asked before a decision is made about a school should be; is this in the best interest of the child? Therefore, it is my contention that in the best interests of our children, we should decentralize provision of education. Put the parents in the center of the operations. It is their children; they should be primarily responsible for them. If they choose to delegate this responsibility to the teachers there should be a contractual relationship, which all the parties should respect and enforce. This is no strange supposition. Decentralization was the rallying call of the last elections, where is the implementation?

That there are incidents of bullying in our schools today is an indictment of the failure of the school administration. The culprits for bullying in schools should not be the student, but the head of the school. Any school head that has not been able to control bullying in their school should not head the institution, ability to control bullying should be a basic requirement in every evaluation of the school head’s performance. But for this to work, the channels of communication between the parents, their children and the school must be open and smooth. There is parental responsibility here and should be established on the first day they send their children to the school.

I know this is a long haul but it is possible. We have to start somewhere, somebody has to take the first step and say we must change. We cannot hide in the premise that our children are only there for four years. We must have the long view and make it better for those that will come after us. I am sure I am not alone in seeing that the school that I went to is the same school my children went to and perhaps my grandchildren will be going to, if we do not change it now, we are condemning our grandchildren to the same mess that we were exposed to. One day we might be faced with the inevitable question from a grandson; why didn’t you take action when you had the capacity and foresight?

We also need to address our examination system. Our education system lays too much emphasis on the final examination, ours is a system where a student can be an A student for eight or twelve years, depending on the exam, but on the final exam the student gets an E perhaps because of extraneous circumstances like death in the family, illness, or others and that students is condemned as a failure and denied chances of advancement. We must change our system to be cognizant of the day-to-day effort of the students. Knowledge is the cumulative sum of all that is learned and cannot be effectively measured by selective questions administered on a wet soggy day. All the accumulated knowledge over time should be considered at some point, this should ease the pressure on the students to just perform well at the end of their courses. The knowledge that their day-to-day classroom performance will somehow count towards their final grade will shift their focus to the purpose of their being in school, gain education, improve attendance, and not plot strikes and hooliganism.

Too many resources have been expended in ostentatious buildings and buses at the expense of the basic materials like books and labs. This too must change. Our schools should not be seen as shining only during the annual musical festivals, which do not take the participants beyond the funfair of appearing in the capital once a year. Where are the musicians, actors and actresses, dance troupes that emerge from this annual circus? We are wasting tremendous time, talent and manpower in preparing the children for this annual circus, which is seen as a terminal event. It is time it was taken a step further and utilize the talents in perhaps recording their work and marketing it and giving the children a direction towards a career. Some of these children may not be gifted academically and this may be the only avenue where their talents can shine. We should not deny them this opportunity. Let our children see that there is life beyond the classroom. Going to high school and college is an ideal but is not panacea to our problems, there are a lot of people that are successful without having made it to college, albeit with greater stress. But we must show our talented youth the various avenues open to them and guide them accordingly. Our system is such that if you do not excel on your academics you are a failure. It is time we looked at the other alternatives open to those who are not academically gifted.

My recommendations therefore are: systematically abolish all boarding schools, empower students in school discipline enforcement; institute a sense of ownership of the schools among the players, parents, students and teachers; Shift the focus in education policies, staffing procedures, promotions and funding to what is best for the student rather than the teacher, politician or community. Schools are there for the child and everything else should revolve around that. Change the system of our examination to include the school life performance rather than one exam performance. Develop the extracurricular activities to be a vocation for the student not a trophy session for the schools.

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