So long as most Kenyan communities think violence is a necessary component in teaching and instilling moral values, it will be hard to eradicate various off-shoots of school-based violence. These include corporal punishment, vandalism, bullying and harassment. This is according to Dr Lewis Ngesu, a leading educational sociologist at the University of Nairobi.
Commenting on persistence and intensity of bullying in secondary schools, Ngesu noted that most school-based violence is anchored in the broader cultural norms that shape social hierarchy, discipline and conformity.
“It is also fuelled by imperfect competition within Kenya’s highly stratified socio-political and economic environment,” says Ngesu.
He says in most instances, parents and teachers condone physical violence on students, as most of them think it has educational qualities or virtues, especially when it is taken as a form of legitimate correction of behaviour at home and school. Subsequently, certain forms of school-based violence seem to have the support of the Kenya Secondary School Heads Association, whose chairman Kahi Indimuli has repeatedly pointed out how current laws have made it hard for teachers to instill discipline in schools.
“We need to sit down as stakeholders to see how best we can handle the issue of indiscipline in schools,” Indimuli commented after reports of extreme bullying emerged in Alliance High School recently. Indeed, Article 53 (1) (d) of the Constitution and Section 36 (1) of the Basic Education Act 2013 discourage beatings and perpetration of other forms of violence on students, but one wonders how much leeway the teachers would like to have to cane students.
The crux of the matter is that violence perpetrated on school-age children either in school or at home is remarkably high in Kenya compared to most countries globally. According to a study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Kenya has some of the highest rates of reported punishment, as almost all children receive a mild form of physical punishment, while two-thirds are subjected to severe corporal punishment either at home or in school.
According to the study, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: A Statistical Analysis of Violence Against Children,’ more than 50 per cent of young men aged 18 to 24 in Kenya reported being punched, kicked, whipped or beaten with an object before turning 18. In another development, 47 per cent of schoolgirls reported being beaten by their teachers, as compared to 39 per cent in Tanzania.
Ngesu alludes that abuse of children so early in life might have resulted into the prevailing extreme bullying, vandalism and militancy in secondary schools in the country. In his doctoral thesis, ‘Student Militancy in Secondary Schools in Kenya: A Sociological Analysis of Its Manifestation, Causes and Consequences,’ he argues that patterns of violence in schools often reflect the levels and patterns of violence in respective countries.
“In the Kenyan situation, students and youth in general are increasingly becoming victims of a socio-economic structure that glorifies material wealth above social consciousness and basic human rights,” Ngesu said in an interview.
He explained the problem of bullying and caning of students seemed to have worsened since teachers were stripped of their power to administer corporal punishment by law.
In total disregard of the law, some teachers continue to inflict corporal punishment as it was part and parcel of the school curriculum. In other circumstances, and possibly for teachers to beat the law, prefects are empowered not just to bully other students but to brutally assault them in full knowledge of teachers and school administration as it happened in Alliance High School.
Unfortunately, the problem is not about to end in the near future. Despite bullying and corporal punishment being systemic and deeply rooted in cultural domains in Kenya, insufficient teacher training continues to impact on teachers’ level of preparedness and lack of awareness of non-violent forms of maintaining discipline, which would enable teachers to deal better with stressful school environment. Quite often, poorly trained teachers feel insecure as they are ill-equipped in terms of subject content and classroom practices. Such teachers are more likely to issue verbal threats, put pressure or physically unleash violence on their students.
Even then, the Teachers Service Commission is aware of the problem, as it recently issued a circular to schools, urging teachers to adhere to the law and stressing finer points of the Basic Education Act that states: “No pupil shall be subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in any manner whether physical or psychological.” According to TSC secretary Nancy Macharia, corporal punishment does not only constitute a professional misconduct but it is a criminal offence that can lead to a conviction in a court of law.
But while those legal and administrative standpoints might be good music to students, a senior staff member of the TSC confirmed that school-based violence and various forms of bullying were still rampant in schools and not just in secondary schools but also in primary schools in all parts of the country. The official, who sought anonymity as he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the TSC, said in some schools pupils are beaten just as if there was no any legal restriction on corporal punishment and quite often with the support of parents.
“We are not yet out of the situation where people believed a student had to be beaten in order to understand not to make mistakes, or learn to respect those in authority,” said the official. Although school-based violence has both physical and psychological negative consequences on victims, in most instances parents and teachers have adopted the tendency of trivialising the problem and which in effect has led to its replication in schools.
However, granted that school-based violence is a global phenomenon, some governments, especially in developed countries, have managed to reduce the problem through investments in education in terms of well trained teachers, physical facilities, learning resources, adolescent health programmes and other policy options that promote friendly-learning environments.
But as Ngesu pointed out, Kenya has a long way to go, as despite raising enrollment in primary education as well as increasing transition rates from primary to secondary, very little in terms of resources have been put in place to avert overcrowding and reduce competition for limited facilities.
Nonetheless, it is not just money matters that are likely to entrench school-based violence in the country, but a wide range of administrative issues, including undefined school rules, poor leadership styles among principals and their deputies, teacher absenteeism and poor classroom management by teachers. These are some of the key issues that need to be addressed.
However, as the country ponders how to reduce school-based violence, teachers and parents should acknowledge that any form of violence in school effectively negates students right to quality education.
It is also good to know that bullying, corporal punishment and other forms of harassment cannot improve learning or discipline among students.