Behind the smoke: Probing annual school burning frenzy

Police inspect a burnt dormitory at Itierio Boys High school in Kisii county. (Denish Ochieng'/Standard)

The government has taken a hard-line stand on students involved in attacks,  strikes, protests and destruction of property in schools.

According to Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed, such students are merely common criminals and will not just be prosecuted but also blacklisted in police records. But despite being concerned about sporadic waves of burning of dormitories, the government and other stakeholders in education differ on what is causing unrest in schools countrywide. 

The official thinking is that students are setting ablaze school buildings because of fear to sit public examinations. Teachers’ unions are blaming poor management of schools that include the recent mass transfers of principals.

Although each of those antagonists may have reason to apportion blame to students, teachers or both, none of them has suggested lasting solutions to the nagging problem that has been cropping from time to time from as early as the 1970s.

In fact, student indiscipline and unrest in schools has been a major blot on development of education since independence.

But while occurrences of student unrest in the first 20 years of independence were few and in form of boycotts of classes, the problem soon spawned into destruction of property and loss of life.

Remember the March 25, 1991 Nyeri High School incident when students locked up four prefects in their cubicles at night, doused them with petrol and set them on fire, killing them? Or the July 13, 1991 murderous attack at the St Kizito Mixed Secondary School when boys invaded a girls’ dormitory, raped more than 70, leaving 19 dead.   

It is under this background that the government convened the Presidential Committee on Student Unrest and Indiscipline in Kenyan Schools under the chairmanship of Dr Lawrence Sagini.

Deadly strikes

But despite the government’s concerns, the problem hanged on. In 1997, students set ablaze dormitories at Bombolulu Girls Secondary School where 57 students died. Another ugly incident occurred at Kyanguli Secondary School in 2001 when more than 65 students perished in a fire.

No doubt the list of violent actions executed by students in schools is long. Apart from Sagini’s committee, in 2000 and 2001 respectively, the Ministry of Education set up a committee on Causes, Effects and Remedies of Indiscipline in Secondary Schools in Central Province and the Task Force on Student Discipline and Unrest in Secondary Schools to look into the matter as unrest persisted.

But even without faulting the work of these committees, most of their key findings are generic and impinge on students’ lack of role models, communication breakdown between them and the administration and what they term as negative impact of western values.

The committees also point out mismanagement of schools, inadequate guidance and counselling, political interference and overloaded curriculum.

Nonetheless, if those are the main causes of student unrest and indiscipline in schools, why has it become too hard for the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders to tackle the situation?

Lacking from those reports is a simple definition or an analysis as to what a school should be. What role should schools play in the society? Do we really need boarding schools?

No doubt, the time has come for Kenyans to discuss the kind of schools they have build for their children. The crux of the matter is that whereas a good school should be a place of educating students, developing their minds and character, schooling in Kenya has changed into a machine that helps pass examinations and eventually secure a job.

According to Prof Ronald Dore, a British sociologist who had a short stint as a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Nairobi in 1970s, the competitive scramble for jobs had created a backwash effect on the quality of education in Kenya.  As early as 1976, Dore in his controversial book, Diploma Disease: Education, Qualifications and Development, predicted future intensive reliance on education certificates instead of skills in Kenya and Sri Lanka.

The craze to attain university minimum entry grades cannot be ruled out as one of the powder kegs for rising student unrest, especially when the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations date approach and the syllabus has not been covered.

Some principals have also adopted the policy of ‘100 per cent transition rate’ where they promise parents that all their KCSE candidates will attain a mean-grade of C+ and above.

Equally to blame are parents who exert pressure on their children and teachers to attain higher university entrance grades, even when some children are not capable of such. Students, especially in sub-country and country boarding schools often learn in a high-pressure environment in order to perform. Whereas no one should condone student violent actions and indiscipline, most public boarding schools in Kenya have failed to provide students with experience to develop self-reliance, individual responsibility, consideration for other people and students.

Blaming the victim

Instead of creating conducive learning and living atmosphere, overcrowding and lack of proper sanitation in their dormitories and dining halls have created intense competition for space and other resources.

In a nutshell, the government, teachers, parents, teacher unions and other stakeholders in education sector are living in self-denial and are now blaming the victim. There are indicators that most secondary schools in the country have failed to provide a holistic learning environment and instead are fuelling diploma disease that has become malignant.

There is urgent need to decongest boarding schools by providing additional facilities or by building new ones altogether. The government should also encourage attendance in day secondary schools instead of boarding units of little value.