Of school uniforms and dumb cosmetic changes

Parents shopping for school uniforms in Nakuru in 2017. Schools have for decades maintained their school uniform for reasons of pride and heritage. [File, Standard]

In the old days, each time a school got a new head, what would follow next was predictable. You were assured the school rules, programme and even waking up hours would change.

The new heads would also change the location or even when not possible, direction of the door to the staff-room or the venue of the assembly. The most daring, would change the main gate and the school uniform.

These changes had several aims, first being warning to everyone who doubted, that the school was under new management and change was in the air. They were also meant to signal to the disbelieving that the new man or woman at the helm had new ideas and was making a break from the past.

The changes were also meant to herald the new way of doing things that would guarantee excellence. Unfortunately, most times the changes would come yes, but after a while, the status quo triumphed and the core changes that would have revolutionised the performance of the school either abandoned or downgraded.

Same colour, same material

Long after we thought the era of our affinity with cosmetic changes was gone, turns out that at Jogoo House, some senior educationists are still stuck in this time-warp. We have heard from Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang that plans are under way to have Kenyan children wear the same school uniform in colour and fabric across the country.

Yes, you are right if you believe this idea was inspired by former Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i’s phenomenal success in having schools, primary and secondary, change the colour of their buses to yellow. Lest we forget, his order was anchored by law and policy, which though had been ignored, remained alive in the books.

So much that when school managements claimed they needed financial support from the ministry for the repainting programme, Dr Matiang’i retorted this was akin to being asked to subsidize lawbreakers.  

The triviality in this springs from the venue and occasion of announcement; Eldoret’s Rivatex Factory, an appendage of Moi University. As he told the firm to get ready for the national exercise to knit and sew one colour and fabric uniform for millions of Kenya’s schoolchildren, he seemed to suggest that this was a new entrepreneurial and money-minting venture. In short, every corrupt and enterprising Kenyan would rush to have his or her snout in the trough.

The reasons for this unnecessary venture are mainly two-fold. First, to bring uniformity in how children are dressed given that some have cheap and others expensive fabrics. Some have short or long trousers and still others wear blazers or sweaters or both.

Secondly, the feeling among the old and conservative educationists (encouraged by the entrepreneurial buccaneers) is that with some of the uniforms, it is hard to tell if one was a student, say, inside a roadside pub or not. According to this school of thought, why not just put them on one colour and voila! indiscipline and engaging in illicit under-age sex and truancy would be gone in a flash.

Rotten infrastructure

There are several problems with this reasoning. It is not a priority; schools have worse headaches to deal with including claims of homosexuality and lesbianism. There is the affinity with exam cheatings, with some rioting when "denied" leakages. There is sexual molestation and even impregnation of young girls by teachers.

There is the perpetual problem of poverty and the way it cuts short the education careers of so many children. Then there is the rotten infrastructure that is a reality in the slums and rural areas, where children battle the elements while learning under trees and in structures that pig owners would be ashamed to call sties. 

There are also schools with no electricity, water or toilets. Then there are schools that have semi-naked and barefooted children, distinguishable by their torn uniforms. Add on top of these the schools where children sit on stones and still expect Jubilee to supply them with laptops.

All these aside, think of schools like Starehe Boys, The Alliance, Alliance Girls, Kapsabet and Kabarnet that have for decades maintained their school uniform for reasons of pride and heritage.

The colours and fabric, cheap and distinguishable, bear a history that keeps the children some motivational drive. It makes the current students part of the history of the school.

In short, we have here in Dr Kipsang and his ilk another latter-day school headmaster looking for something "remarkable" to do that would probably give him the Dr Matiang’i "effect". At this rate, the CS Housing will soon order slum dwellers to install lifts in their homes within a year or they be flattened.

Mr Tanui is Deputy Editorial Director and Managing Editor, The [email protected]