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September 21, 2018

'Populism' is hurting our best schools

Candidates of Starehe Boys Centre stand up as supervisors collect examination papers after the completion of Swahili paper one. photo/PATRICK VIDIJA
Candidates of Starehe Boys Centre stand up as supervisors collect examination papers after the completion of Swahili paper one. photo/PATRICK VIDIJA

It is easy to run education from behind mahogany desks in Jogoo House, Nairobi. But the implosion in schools demands practical ways of addressing the desired uniformity without lowering standards.

It takes years to establish a tradition of excellence, but a one-minute edict can disrupt those standards. Some schools could lose their competitiveness thanks to mass enrolment, without proportional investment in quality assurance.

This is what commercialisation of education has done to academic standards in public universities. Admissions were hiked without corresponding investments to accommodate the numbers.

The sound bites are great when politicians declare they want all KCPE candidates admitted in Form One. It is a great idea that advances the constitutional right to education.

It is great to create day streams in boarding schools to accommodate the high demand for education. But do we consider how 50 or more students arriving on boda boda taxis every morning, and leaving every afternoon, will upset discipline in these schools?

It would take a squad of guards to search arriving students for contraband. It would also take an equal number of guards to confirm naughty day scholars are not leaving with stolen items from other students.

The Kenya High School was built for daughters of settlers and expatriates. It has a pedigree, which alumni and stakeholders have always defended. They did so when the Moi government 'threatened' to turn Kenya High into a university.

Upsetting the traditions of established institutions like Lenana School, Starehe Boys Centre, the Nairobi School, and others, to admit more students who would otherwise be excluded, is populist. Established schools are straining on operational costs.

Maranda High School, with an enrolment of 493 for KCSE in 2017, St Joseph's Boys High School - Kitale, 477, and Alliance Girls High School 394, cannot run on the same budget as Loreto High School with 261, Mangu High 299, Kenya High 298, or Starehe Boys 254. The numbers are higher for lower classes at Maranda, and St Joseph's Kitale. Alliance Girls High School, for example, admitted 487 students in Form One - 100 more.

AGHS, sitting on 87 acres, was established 70 years ago by missionaries for African girls. The dilapidated facilities need upgrade. The compound needs maintenance, security and lighting. The high standards need to be sustained against rising inflation.

There are hyper demands on some of these schools, against hyper expectations, which are hard to sustain at a lower cost. This is the position, even if unit cost per student is considered.

Some schools got money from government to improve facilities such as classrooms, but additional numbers require much more: Teachers, libraries, dining halls, kitchens, dormitories, beds, laboratories, and toilets.

Starehe Boys Centre declined the order for a day stream at the school, which the late Geoffrey Griffins founded on sound principles of discipline and excellence. The management said the school was not ready for the culture shock. They did not want to rattle the founder any more than they have done, what with plummeting standards since his death.

It sounds considerate to demand a uniform fee structure for national schools. It sounds fine for other schools to charge uniform fees. But the special circumstances of these schools were not considered before the political edict of one size fits all.

The initial free ride for school managers was abused. Some schools would raise fees without consulting parents, and before seeking ministry approval. As a guardian of a student at the Alliance Boys High School in the 1990s, and as a parent at the Maseno School before the age of selective populism, the feeling was take it or leave it. Sons of the endowed would take up places of those who dropped out because they could not pay.

Equity is fine; uniformity is great to advance education as a constitutional right, but ministerial edicts should consider special needs of schools.

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