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Court tussle threatens Form One selection

By | January 15th 2011

By Lillian Aluanga

The controversy surrounding the Ministry of Education’s shift in the selection criteria of students to national schools went a notch higher Friday when the association of private schools moved to court.

The Kenya Private Schools Association, through their advocate, Mr Chege Wainaina, told the High Court in Nairobi that they would suffer if the new criterion is not set aside.

The matter will be heard before all parties on Tuesday. If they are granted an injunction next week, it could throw the selection process into disarray. The Form One selection process has moved on to provincial schools and the students are expected to report to school soon.

All stakeholders will be waiting to see how the court rules on the matter. Other countries have had challenges introducing equity policies in admission to schools and universities. The United States for example was for a long time torn by the debate on whether or not to reserve a quota of places in universities for the underprivileged and minorities.

In line with the new quota system of selection, which Education Minister Sam Ongeri says is in keeping with the Constitution, pupils from private schools will no longer have the lion’s share of places in national schools.

Under the Bill of Rights every child has a right to free primary and secondary education. The Constitution espouses fairness and equity in the access to basic needs.

Why the fuss?

In the past, private schools have performed better than public ones in national exams, consequently having many of their students get admissions to the highly competitive schools like Alliance, Lenana, Mang’u, Maseno, Kenya High and Limuru Girls.

Under the new guidelines, only 1,224 places will be reserved for pupils from private schools who sat KCPE last year, while those from public schools will have 3, 293 slots to fill.

Private schools have cried foul over the move, which they term discriminatory, but public institutions have hailed the directive, which they say will give more pupils a chance to attend some of the country’s top performing schools.

So what is it about national schools that make them so coveted? What are their origins and why have their numbers remained the same despite the fact that the population has quadrupled since independence?

"They (national schools) were established in pre-independent Kenya for the colonialist’s children," says Education Ministry PS James Ole Kiyiapi.

These included schools like Lenana, founded in 1949 by colonial Governor Phillip Mitchell. Then known as the Duke of York School, Lenana was reserved for white students and had facilities such as a golf course, horse stables, a cricket pavilion, and a rifle range. In a similar league was Limuru Girls, which was started in 1922 by a settler, Arnold McDonell, for his four daughters. Kenya High was started in 1908, when it was known as the Nairobi European School. The school started in wooden huts and was originally designed for police. In 1935, it was named the European Girls Secondary School, before adopting its present one in 1939.

Educationist, Prof Sorobea Bogonko says such schools, which were deemed representative of a new nation devoid off racial barriers after independence, were declared ‘national’ because they were already well established.

"The schools had special facilities and a good educational foundation," says Bogonko, author of several books, including Reflections on Education in East Africa, and A History of Modern Education in Kenya. Unlike their counterparts that were purely for Whites, national schools like Alliance and Mangu were started by Christian missionaries for Africans. But others like Starehe Boys School have a different story. Founded in 1959 by Geoffrey Griffin, Joseph Gikubu and Geoffrey Geturo, the school was started as a rescue centre for boys orphaned by a crackdown on the Mau Mau during the emergency period.

Genesis of national schools

"Alliance refers to the coming together of Christian missionaries from several churches," says Kiyiapi, of the school that was started in 1926.

This included the Church of Scotland Mission, also known as PCEA, Church of the Province of Kenya, (CPK now Anglican Church of Kenya), the Methodist Church and the African Inland Church (AIC). Mang’u was founded in 1925 by the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Roman Catholic congregation.

"The idea was to introduce tribal integration by admitting students from all over the country," says Kiyiapi. He says although the State took over the schools after independence, the concept of admitting top students was retained.

"Those who attended these schools wanted the same institutions for their children because of the great career opportunities offered thereafter," he adds.

This fostered the belief that the schools were a ticket to a brighter future and the resultant demand for the few available slots.

To date, there are only 18 national schools that absorb less than five per cent of the total number of candidates who qualify to join secondary school. This is partly one of reasons Kenya Union of Post Primary Teachers (Kuppet) national chairman Akelo Misori terms the latest move by the Education ministry ‘unfair’.

"The minister is using a populist policy. We cannot ignore the fact that public schools cannot absorb all pupils given challenges of poor infrastructure and poor teacher to pupil ratios," he says.

Misori says the move negates provisions in the Education Act that allows parents to enrol children in either private or public schools.

"It will kill the spirit of public- private partnerships because those who take their children to private schools also fund public education," he adds.

But Kenya Primary School Heads Association chair Joseph Karuga says the new guidelines were long overdue.

Increased demand for access to national schools has been pegged on, among other factors, the emergence of a middle class generation that views them as a gateway to careers like medicine, engineering and law.

A policy shift in the 1980s that saw only 15 per cent of slots in national schools reserved for pupils outside their provinces of location is seen as having watered down the spirit of integration and instead nurtured an ‘in-breeding’ system that diminished options for those studying outside such regions. This has been used by some quarters in the education sector to explain a rise in the number of private schools that have outshone public ones hence sending most of their pupils to national schools.

Kiyiapi, who has defended the new guidelines, says while there is need for expansion of national schools, the objectives of their establishment must not be lost.

"If we will only use grades to determine who goes to national schools, then we should not call them national, but simply post primary academies. Let us not lose the value concept of these schools which should be all inclusive, irrespective of one’s gender, ethnicity or socio economic status," he says.

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