Our schools have been closed longest since schooling began in Kenya, more than a century ago. Even during the Mau Mau, they remained closed, says elders. The nine-month closure gave us some insights into what schooling is all about. It is more than paying school fees and wearing a uniform.
The first observation is that our schools are social dustbins. Parents are very happy not to have their children at home. Many would even pay to have them stay in school during the holidays. Why else is holiday tuition so popular? It is driven by parents, most think it is driven by greedy teachers.
The excuse given mostly by middle and upper class to have their children in school all the time is that they are too busy to take care of them. That is not convincing. They are already used to outsourcing child rearing services. Their children are raised by house girls, transferring that responsibility to teachers is easy. I know families that have employed two house girls, one for each child.
Among Kenyans at the lower echelons of the society, children are welcome home, they are a source of labour from farming to taking care of the younger ones. It would be interesting to find what our children did, beyond eating, in those nine months. Many will get new uniforms.
Let me add that parenting is not easy, but no one can do it better than the parents. Indians and mzungus have tried to do parenting themselves, with one parent staying at home when children are young. Ever wondered why in Kenya and beyond they have such low levels of unemployment?
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Why do we transfer responsibility to schools? Bachelor of Education degree has no unit called “Nannying 101.”
Some teachers have never raised their own children. We make matters worse by using the law to disempower teachers: Do not punish children, counselling will do. Children know they can get away with anything, making teaching one of the most difficult and stressing jobs. Luckily, after nine months some parents now appreciate better what teachers do for them.
It is not just the parents who think the school can solve all our problems; we all do. If there is a national problem, the answer is, put it in the curriculum.
While we expect the school to solve our problems, we do not fund them enough. The fees are controlled and do not reflect the market reality. Think of it, the most critical stage of schooling and growing up is at primary and secondary. University students are adults and can take care of themselves.
But which schools are more endowed with physical structures and resources? Remember the windowless and door-less schools in the rural area? We make matters worse by having those with the lower education qualifications become teachers, particularly at primary schools.
Believe me, it is easier to teach in a university than nursery school. In fact, only degree holders should teach nursery and primary schools.
Think again, the closer you get to the womb, the more complex it becomes. Think of molecular biology and fertilisation and gynaecology. Why do we exempt education to this rule?
The school is supposed to be fun for children. It used to be; that is why we never burned dorms in our days. They were better than our homes. After nine months, schools have to deal with children used to freedom, with internet and eating whatever they want and when they want. For some children in remote areas, they missed school meals.
Sadly, the nanny business is being escalated to university. Parents come to check if their children come to school or why they have missing marks. Yet, being responsible and confident are the most important virtues one can get from school.
Nannism is being extended from high school; parents pick and drop children in secondary school on reporting and closing days. When will they learn to be responsible if not in school?
Schools ought to nurture children in a homely environment, physically, so that they grow healthy. That is why sporting activities are so important to schools.
They should nurture them socially, learning to interact with members of the society outside their families, where they will spend the rest of their lives. That is why I find single sex schools strange. Where did the idea come from?
Children should be nurtured intellectually, getting ideas that fascinate and open up their minds. That is why over-specialisation is bad for students in the long run.
We must nurture them economically, imbibing them with skills that will help them earn a living after school. Never mind that most students learn how to avoid work. There is a hidden philosophy that we go to school to work less and get paid more. That is why graduate degrees are popular - not for love of knowledge.
Lots of schools nurture their students spiritually. That can best be done at home and in churches. You may contest that. The spiritual part of our lives has left my head spinning. During the colonial era, the biggest structures in the rural area were mzungu houses. Now they are churches.
We hope the nine months were enough to rethink on the purpose and meaning of school.
We need to retool the school for the post-Covid-19 era. How prepared are we for this era beyond masks and thermal guns? Did we build new classrooms or has the problem been devolved to schools, their boards and head teachers?
Next week we look at the death of confidence among students graduating from our schools and the long-term implications to our economy.
Happy New Year.
- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi.