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Why you can’t gloss over the boarding school issue

EDUCATION
By Antoney Luvinzu | August 2nd 2021

The ongoing debate on whether to abolish boarding schools is welcome because it allows us to rethink some of our policy and legal frameworks underpinning our education system, especially with regards to boarding schools.

According to the Ministry of Education, boarding schools will be abolished in a faded or cascaded manner. The reasons range from incessant student unrests to security concerns and high costs, among others.

In any case, such reasons are flimsy. This is a classic case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Unruly students have been setting dormitories on fire for sport. Therefore, the solution, according to the ministry, is to get rid of the dormitories! I’d call this a non-sequitur. A colossal joke.  

Just like the policy of painting school buses yellow, this is another idea borrowed from the west. Like many other knee-jerk pronouncements, there hasn’t been any research-based guidance on this initiative.

Our unique social dynamics have not been put into consideration here. Our quota and affirmative action based selection hasn’t been factored either, where students come from as far as Lodwar to attend Alliance High in Kiambu. Or those who move across a huge county to attend extra county schools.  

Boarding schools have been a feature of education systems for centuries, not just here in Kenya, but the world over. They are vital to the students’ motivation, engagement with academia, and psychological well-being (for example interpersonal relationships). They are an opportunity for students to learn a number of life skills while having access to a high quality education in a singular focus.

The decision to attend boarding school is the first step in what many consider a “big picture” decision: the advantages that come with it will pay off in the long term and far outweigh the inconveniences and demerits. A good number of leaders and successful members of society began their journeys in boarding schools.

What makes most boarding schools work well is the vast number of activities, programmes, and challenges available to students on a daily basis with little interference from the “outside world”.

The typical boarding school student is one who wants to embrace this huge opportunity they’ve been afforded — to live in a community where learning, personal growth and exploration are top priority; where programmes and activities are abundant; where making friends (collaboration) is paramount and essential for survival; and where success is celebrated.

What are the benefits of boarding school?

Children learn independence and understand the value of having priorities. Independence might be the greatest gift that parents can give to their children. Yes, not immense inheritance. Today, when so many parents are hyper-vigilant and want to be involved in every aspect of their child’s life, boarding school can be the perfect antidote.

Children are required to navigate through the elements, do their own laundry, and organise themselves. Basically be self-driven for the most part. Parents aren’t there to shield them from natural causes and effects.

Boarding schools are good places to fail and succeed — which makes them great places to learn. It’s controlled freedom. Children don’t just get into college: they arrive prepared to take it on and succeed, with the ability to manage their own lives. They become strong individuals capable of leadership and have self-initiative.

The current state of our lives has made it difficult for parents to cultivate those traits. Students don’t just have to manage their own affairs, they learn how to live and deal with other people. They are challenged to develop their interpersonal skills because there is no hiding at boarding school. Or running to mum and dad every day.

A child who is dropped off in the morning and picked up at three o’clock is not challenged to develop the same skills as one who lives with other students 24 hours a day in school.

Boarding school is a transformative experience in learning to communicate with others, something a lot of people don’t get until college, if at all. Some children are sent to boarding schools to improve their academic performance because of the focus and contact hours from teachers that come with it.

These schools offer supervision and coaching outside official hours. Some boarding schools are designed for children with special needs to benefit from extra care. In many of these cases, parents, for whatever reason, are unable to take care of their children at home.

The sense of community and personal growth is well cultivated in boarding schools. One of the notable studies of the effects of boarding school on students’ academic and non-academic outcomes was commissioned by The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS, 2003, 2013) comparing the experiences of American boarding students (N=248), private day students (N=212), and public day students (N=268) matched by socio-economic status.

Of those surveyed, 68 per cent of boarding students, 52 per cent of private day students, and 42 per cent of public day students indicated that attending boarding school helped them develop a range of non-academic outcomes (like self-discipline, maturity, independence, cooperative learning and critical thinking).

In terms of academic climate, 91 per cent of boarding students, 70 per cent of private day students, and 50 per cent of public day students reported that their school was academically challenging. A total of 95 per cent of boarding students, 86 per cent of private day students, and 86 per cent of public day students were satisfied with their academic experience.

Finally, 87 per cent of boarding students, 71 per cent of private day students, and 39 per cent of public day students reported that their schools prepared them for college. Based on these findings, it appears there are positive perceptions, from learners themselves, of the modern boarding experience.

Academics are important, but when students get together after they’ve graduated and moved on to university and then successful careers, it’s not that great history or biology class they remember, but their time in the wilderness, the dorm life, or other memorable moments. A student of mine once quipped that the most memorable moments in school are outside the classroom. Boarding school allows students to learn lessons of other cultures and walks of life.

Boarding schools offer strong academic opportunities. They offer other pros, such as the opportunity for students to foster intense connections with their teachers, in part due to smaller, more intimate class sizes.

The outlook of teachers at boarding schools regarding their position isn’t that of a job, but more of a vocation, where they become an important role model in each of their students’ lives. Teachers work with students, share meals and often live on campus, making it a difficult environment to duplicate anywhere else.

English comedian and light entertainment host, the late Ted Rogers, credited his early days at Upper Canada College, a boarding school in Toronto, Ontario, as critical to his development of interests in both electronics and business. He used that beginning to build the Rogers Empire that is now one of the largest communications companies in the world.

While the educational experience at these schools is important to personal and educational growth and development, it is also a precursor to life after school. Research has shown that boarding school students feel more prepared for college and university than their peers from day schools, and are more likely to earn more advanced degrees like a Master’s or PhD, and advance to more prominent roles in their careers and communities.

The move to post-secondary education can be a difficult transition for many. Being away from the support system of family and friends and the challenges of becoming acquainted with a new place and style of learning can bear a heavy burden. Boarding schools have a unique environment that prepares students for whatever larger world they are entering, be that academic, entrepreneurial, socially active, or anything in between.

Boarding schools can also act as a safe haven for children from difficult or bad home situations, such as violence, FGM, cattle rustling, general insecurity, et cetera.

Besides, conflict can lead to displacement and separation of children from their parents. The same goes for children whose parents live a nomadic life. Boarding schools offer an opportunity to get an education as the government has tried to establish affordable/low-cost boarding schools in arid and semi-arid areas for these children.

The Cons

No school is perfect. Granted, some have better practices than others. As such, parents and students considering boarding schools need to be aware of some potential inconveniences, disadvantages or concerns.

In any case, boarding schools have been flagged for contributing to social imbalance. Being absent from home at an early age implies kids will be incapable to learn numerous social values, convictions, and customs. Boarding schools, moreover, cause a sense of estrangement. Children in boarding schools may feel unloved, undesirable or uncared for.

Some educators attempt to supply a sense of family belonging to children in boarding schools, but some do not bother. This is where you discover a child battling with homesickness.

Physical abuse and sexual predation have been reported, some in hushed tones. Several schools, some quite prestigious, have been put on the spot in the past over cases of bullying. Boarding schools in Kenya have been the notorious venues for bullying, which has turned out to be one of the ills bedeviling these otherwise awesome learning spaces. In all fairness, the menace has been quite effectively managed over the years through innovative programmes and policies that help new, young students integrate seamlessly.

It’s a no brainer that boarding schools are more expensive than day schools due to additional needs which translate to costs.

The greatest challenge our boarding schools are facing at the moment is student unrest. Unruly students have been setting dormitories ablaze and going on strike for such petty reasons as not being allowed to watch soccer. The solution, however, is not to get rid of dormitories or entertainment assets. The solution lies on proper policy frameworks, effective and decisive leadership, and nipping such behaviour in the bud.

Why is it that private schools don’t suffer such cases of arson or unrest or bullying witnessed in public schools? Does the Ministry of Education also intend to abolish boarding in private schools which are largely exempted from this menace? If yes, what would be the logic here then? If no, can public schools benchmark with their private counterparts in a bid to find more reasonable solutions than abolishing boarding?

Antoney Luvinzu is an IB Educator

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