We need standards for school construction

The government is playing catch up following the school collapse in Nairobi that killed at least seven. The Ministry of Education has moved to deregister two schools, including the one affected by the collapse. The county government of Nairobi has also dismissed officers in charge of regulating construction. But are these efforts enough? What does this experience tell us about the state of education in Kenya?

Since introduction of free primary education in 2003, the government has struggled to maintain standards in primary and secondary schools. Lack of sufficient supply of schools and teachers has meant increasing class sizes and declining learning outcomes. To address the unmet demand, private schools have mushroomed all over the country and across different income levels. Higher income households seek to escape the crumbling public education system. And for low-income households, private schools are often the only option available.

Overall, what we have is a public education system that can no longer meet the demand for quality education among families. As a result, we have a fragmented education system that runs on inertia and which in all indication is not working. Because of the variance in quality of private schools (throughout income levels), it is no longer a guarantee that escaping the public sector guarantees good learning outcomes. Indeed, it is still the case our best public schools are the best placed to provide quality education for vast majority of Kenyan pupils.

To address the problems manifested in incidents such as the school collapse, it is important to know how we got here. It is not enough to huff and puff, dismiss a few people, and deregister a few schools. What is needed is a methodical reevaluation of how we manage the education sector. We must ask why, as a matter of ongoing practice, the Ministry of Education does not regularly inspect safety of schools.

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Also, does the national government have official policy on basic requirements in the design and construction of schools?

While one may not want excessive regulation of school construction, it might be useful to have basic minimums for safety reasons. This may include specifics about pupils per toilet, safety in multi-storeyed buildings, fire escape routes, code for roofing materials, among others. Furthermore, some parts of the country simply do not have schools, and have students learning under trees.

If you think about it, school construction presents the government with an important policy tool to shape the continued evolution of Kenya’s construction sector. Government investment in the design and construction of public schools throughout the country would create immense demand for services of architects, material scientists, quantity surveyors, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, and all other related sectors. All those directly involved in school construction would go on to demand food, housing, clothing, air time, among other things, thereby sustaining unrelated sectors and contributing to the generation of tax revenue.

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What I have just described is not just theory. If you walk around Nairobi, you will notice that older public schools – regardless of income levels – have a standard design. We have already proven that this can be done. The problem is that along the way we lost direction. I hope this tragedy will jolt us into coming up with a serious national effort to build and maintain durable and safe schools.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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