When the government put its foot down on holiday tuition, owners and managers of private schools had to look for another way of making extra money. Some of them hiked and keep hiking tuition fees every term and introduced some amorphous items on their term fees structure, more like the various activity fees in my school days.
Then somebody told them that some cunning animal with nine lives had ‘licked their eyes’, opening them to the lucrative pastime of school trips. Unfortunately, teachers are not the primary monetary beneficiaries of these trips, which make owners of the schools overnight millionaires.
It has become standard these days for children in upper primary to go on what have been touted as ‘educational’ trips every term. In my school days, such trips, though rare, were one-day affairs. But the owners of private schools today have become more and more adventurous and are taking kids further and further for longer periods. For upcountry students, the crown used to be a trip to the Coast, but today they are getting passports and travelling out of the country, hitherto the preserve of children of the rich in exclusive schools.
Granted, the children make these trips mostly to neighbouring countries, but the cost to parents is prohibitive and they mostly give in to avoid the stigmatisation of their children, who are mostly coerced by the school management or teachers to pay for the trips. One school recently told pupils those who did not pay for the August holiday trip would be given holiday homework consisting of 150 questions in every subject.
With such pressure being exerted, even the not-too-daring children who would rather have spent the holiday with their families, hassled their parents to pay up.
The bigger share of the money thus paid is stashed away by the school owners, who send the children on the trip on a shoe-string budget, sleeping in bedbug-infested third-rate hotels or equally seedy hostels. The children eat junk food for lunch and supper.
The children are normally accompanied by a few teachers who have next to nothing in terms of emergency funds. Should a bus break down or a child get sick, they have to seek help from the school proprietor somewhere in Nairobi, Meru or Nyeri.
The very unfortunate drowning of standard seven pupils from Murang’a county at a beach in Diani on Wednesday, while utterly regrettable, must act as a wake-up call for private school owners and managers.
The day after the accident, some beach operators claimed they had asked teachers to give them Sh600 to take care of the boys who wanted to wade into the ocean, but the teaches allegedly refused. Or did they? Most likely the teachers had limited resources and could not even afford the Sh600.
I have heard of private schools who take pupils for trips from upcountry to the Coast and many other destinations and give them Sh1,000 allowance for their needs for several days. The same amount or less is given to drivers, who have to drive long distances for long hours, even ignoring the safeguard of government-stipulated hours.
Ultimately these trips have become cash cows and one ‘well-organised’ trip to a neighbouring country would easily earn a school owner about Sh1 million.
Usually the teachers accompanying the pupils or students are just as ignorant of the environment they are visiting as their charges. Otherwise how would anybody allow young boys into the unpredictable ocean without professional help on standby? Many in Central Kenya have only ‘swum’ in streams, although some schools now have swimming pools. But even these pools are child's play, compared to the mighty ocean.
The uttermost caution must always be taken when schoolchildren are travelling to uncharted places. The teachers should not take or allow the students to take spontaneous actions that may jeopardise their lives or safety. If they are not in the know, the teachers must never use the students as guinea pigs.
Schools must stop using ‘educational’ trips to make money and if they must continue, the government must ensure that safety regulations are strictly observed.
However greedy they may be, school owners should search their souls and ensure that the teachers and drivers they send out with schoolchildren are well taken care of and are able to take care of emergencies.
Lastly, I hope to God that the beach operators at Diani did not purposely let the young men drown simply because they had not been paid to keep an eye on them.
Njonjo Kihuria is a freelance journalist. [email protected]