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Chaos in Kenyan Schools – Some Considerations for Action

Matunda Nyanchama

October 21, 2016

Kenya witnessed a near-epidemic burning of schools a few months ago. These fires raged across the country and spared neither girls’ nor boys’ schools. It appeared like an equal opportunity phenomenon and (in some cases) copycat acts.

A few months earlier, there were reports of blatant display of indiscipline by students from a number of schools. Most notorious of these were cases where students hired mobile “discos” in form of matatus and engaged in wanton partying with all imaginable accompaniments, including alcohol, cigarettes, and hard drugs. Some alleged that, in some cases, students openly engaged in sex as they partied in their hired disco contraptions.

Subsequently, there have been discussions as to the root cause of student indiscipline in national forums, in news outlets (newspapers and TV) as well as social media.  A number of reasons have been proffered as causes, including the removal of canning as a punishment for kids, poorly trained school management, local community interference (yes they want one of their own in their school!), religious sponsor overbearing and more. All of these are possibilities.

My own view is that these should not be taken in isolation. Indeed, they should be seen also in the context of the greater society in which these children are growing up and how children grow up in this society.

It starts with the formative years. No sooner is a child born than the parents return to their work-related busy schedule. Here the child is left with a house help or, in some cases, day care. Parent-child interaction in a typical day is a few hours, usually in the evening or none at all. Baby-parent contact is worse for men than women given the socialization trends in our society. One would think weekends would be any different to enable quality parent-child time. It does not usually turn out so as the parents are engaged in life’s rat-race!

Question: with this minimal parent-child contact, who really does the parenting? Who imparts what values on the kids? Whose actions are the children likely to internalize? The house help of the parent?

The next typical stage is when school age arrives. A typical Kenyan kid would be sent to boarding school as early as possible. In fact, boarding school is such a status symbol Kenya that most parents would go to extraordinary length to send their children to boarding school.

In most cases, a child goes to boarding school as early as 10 years when (say) in grade four. While there, the child spends the entire school term with teachers and staff, punctuated with a day or so parents’ visiting day. Three months in a year the child is on holidays and (supposedly) spend time at home. More often than not, the child would be put in tuition and hence away from home as the parents are busy at work.

Let’s be truthful to ourselves! Our children are largely brought up maids, and television, in addition to what they learn from their peers, teachers and staff in school!  They imbue that which they watch happen, e.g. our society’s bad manners with respect to corruption, impunity and all.

Now consider television and its impact on shaping the values of our society. Our news is full of adult acts of impunity, ethnic discrimination, corruption, violence and more. From these constant images, some ingrained in music and comedy become part of a child’s life. Over time, the child internalizes these and take them as normal. A recent survey of the youth found most of them would make money using any means provided they were not caught!     images-school-burning-1

Now talk about values!

There is more.

Consider the management of our schools. It is a case of too many “chiefs” with discordant messages driven by self-interest. You have the Ministry of Education, boards of management, parent teacher associations, clans in which the schools are situated, elected representatives in the areas where schools are located, the religious sponsor, school heads and more.

Politics plays a key role in constituting of boards of management, appointment of heads of schools and their deputies, and selection parent-teacher association leadership. There have been allegations that some board of management appointees do not even have the requisite education, experience and knowledge to offer meaningful contribution to the management of their schools. In appointing head teachers and their deputies, there is politics of clan, origin and religion. Imagine religious sponsors (many of who have no inkling on matters of managing education) making decisions on who leads schools they sponsor? Imagine the clan fighting to have “one of their own” to lead a school even when that “one of their own” may not have the requisite qualifications!

Managing a school requires managing knowledge and skills, ranging from people management, communication, consensus-building, discipline, motivating others (students, teachers, staff, parents, etc.), and more. Often, most head teachers and deputies are appointed without requisite training on such core aspects management. The result is poorly managed schools that cause lethargy that could trigger chaos in schools.

There have also been reports of deputy head teachers spiritedly sabotaging their bosses in the hope that the head teacher would fail and the deputy head teacher be promoted. Such unethical behaviour is one that could be dealt with through proper training and holding culprits to account!

And more!

The Ministry of Education rightfully outlawed corporal punishment in schools. It was long overdue as canning and other physical punishment can inflict undue pain to the victim. Corporal punishment is inhumane and should only be sanctioned by a court of law following due process. The punishment itself should be prescribed to ensure to harm comes to the victim.

So far so good! But kids do mess and some form of sanction is required for purposes of remedy! Yes, it was a great idea to remover corporal punishment. The question is: what replaced it. The teaching fraternity needs to come up with ingenious ways to sanction offending kids as a means of deterrence against bad behaviour. Lack of sanction for student misdeeds is an indirect endorsement of bad behaviour of the kind we have seen in schools.

Images of some of the burnt down school facilities (especially dormitories) paint a picture of cramped accommodations. There is obvious overcrowding in many of the schools where students are packed like sardines.

Animal studies suggest that stress hormone levels increase with reduction of space available for free movement and play. This is true regardless of the animal, be it chicken, cows, wildebeest, elephants or any other animal. It applies to people as well.

Clearly there is a need to understand the link between diminished space and the student explosions that we have witnessed.  Such studies would come up with the optimal space (square feet per student) for dormitory space, playing fields, classroom, and ablutions.     images-school-burning

It is known that the Ministry of Education approves schools based on a number of criteria, including having ample facilities. This is a good thing. The question is whether this is in any way based on scientific studies that take into account student welfare in terms of space so as not to aggravate stress levels. Higher stress levels in students is like tinder that only requires a spark to ignite and cause havoc.

Recent school unrest suggests a broadminded approach to unearth the root causes. Our view is that such causes are more complicated than meets the eye.  To solve these need a systematic approach that would unearth the root causes and hence provide pointers to solutions that can work.

Key among is shaping the behaviour of children right from when they are born. Parental involvement is central to imparting the necessary values that would shape the children’s future. If it were my wish, eh country could eliminate primary boarding schools. Kids are being separated from the home too early before their sense of self takes shape. This allows them to imbue values from the environment in which they live, little impacted by what their parents would wish for.

As adults (and especially leaders) in our society, we need to be wary of our acts and the messages they send to the children. A society led by people that live by impunity would only entrench impunity in young minds.

Finally, in searching for long term solutions, it is important to be systematic, research all dimensions of the problem if indeed we expect to get to the root cause.

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