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Why the government must take responsibility for school fires

By Augustine Oduor | Nov 2nd 2021 | 6 min read
Buruburu Girls High School dormitory on fire. [Courtesy]

Failure to slot in the half-term break during this school term has been cited as the main reason cases of unrest are being reported across the country.

Secondary school heads say that the 11 weeks learning period under the revised term dates has put pressure on children leading to 'wayward' behaviour.

Schools opened on October 11 and will close on December 23. 

Kahi Indimuli, secondary school heads association national chairman, said that second term is often a busy learning period as most teachers work to cover the syllabus.

He said this effort by teachers to cover learning areas must have also put pressure on children.

Indimuli also said that failure to resume school games and activities have also closed avenues for children to ventilate, putting pressure on learners as well.

"If we have resumed sporting activities across all fields why have we continued to close for schools. we need these games and activities to also help children,' said Indimuli.

It also emerged that failure for the government to send all capitation money to schools and parents inability to settle outstanding fees has also starved schools of the much-needed cash.

"We need to provide some items to children but we are unable because we do not have the money," said Indimuli.

However, even as principals pitched their case for rising cases of school fires, the government is faulted for failing to implement the recommendations of past task forces that prescribed solutions to end of unrest.

The gory images of Buruburu Girls students jumping out of narrow windows during the dormitory fire have put the government on spot for failing to implement safety measures recommended in various reports.

A task force report commissioned in 2016 laid bare causes of school fires, especially during the second term, but a spot check in schools reveals that the findings largely remain on paper.

The recommendations of another government document, titled Safety Standards Manual for Schools, produced in 2008 also largely remain on paper.

School heads are also on spot for failing to implement directives issued by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) to enhance students’ safety and improve vigilance in institutions.

The schools’ unrest debate is a topic discussed in hushed tones in staff rooms and even in the Ministry of Education offices.

However, in its findings, the Claire Omolo Report unearthed major administrative flaws in schools and the existence of backward criminal practices and punishable oversights that spark unrest in schools.

The team also exposed poor living conditions, blatant disregard of government policies and collusion between students and teachers that led to unrest, threatening the lives of innocent learners.

Other reasons that led to unrest are school administrators’ highhandedness, bad school rules and lack of proper communication channels further fanned the fires that paralysed learning during the third term of 2016.

Consequently, the children resorted to burning buildings in schools especially dormitories, administration blocks, classrooms and food stores.

What must however concern parents are teachers’ confessions of reasons they knew caused unrest but still remain unaddressed.

Detectives investigating the course of fire at Sigalame Boys High School in Funyula, Busia County when the school dormitory was set ablaze by unknown arsonists on September 20, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Students also revealed their reasons for burning schools and even prescribed solutions, which are yet to be handled.

In their own submissions, students listed sudden changes in school rules, not being listened to, rampant caning which led to injuries and peer pressure as some of the reasons that pushed them to burn schools.

The students also listed what they felt would cure the problems. In their recommendations, the students said the administration must embrace dialogue with them.

They also proposed that guidance and counselling should be embraced and firmly implemented in schools.

The students also proposed that the school menu be improved and that the infrastructure and facilities in schools should be upgraded.

Overall, the students also proposed that society must come up with better ways of expressing themselves since they are the role models to students.

This was in response to violent scenes witnessed in adults agitating for their freedoms and rights.

On their part, teachers revealed that differences among themselves spilt over to the students.

Teachers also confessed that too many examinations administered to students instilled fear and anxiety among students pushing them to riot.

Cases of drug abuse, lack of proper communication channels, revenge by indisciplined students and political interference in education matters in some cases also dominated causes of school arsons.

Interviews with principals and teachers reveal that most of the proposals are yet to be implemented in most schools.

Kiambere Mixed Secondary School dorm was burned down in January 2021. [Muriithi Mugo, Standard]

In their report, the Claire Omolo task force also found that students believed that dormitories were the administrations' most valuable buildings, and any damage to these structures would get them the attention they needed. 

In their submission to the task force, students said most dormitories were not safe for the learners, observing the facilities were never clean.

“Most of the schools visited had filthy dormitories as evidenced by the presence of bedbugs and foul smell. There was graffiti on some walls whose paint had peeled off yet schools were expected to regularly paint buildings,” reads the report.

This was against the government requirement that spelt out how a dormitory should look like.

The Safety Standards Manual for Schools (2008) demands dormitories have double doors, opening outwards and windows without grills were largely ignored.

However, students interviewed also said that burning dormitories was the easiest way of having new ones constructed.

“Students felt that it was the easiest way to have them sent home,” reads the report.

The Omolo task force said that dormitories must be cleaned to make them habitable.

“Most of the schools visited had overcrowded and congested dormitories with some students sleeping on triple-decker beds in order to accommodate large numbers and in some cases students were forced to share beds.”

The 2008 safety manual also required that spaces between beds must be wide enough to allow for manoeuvre and escape during an emergency.

However, the task force found that some of the schools visited, had dormitories that did not have any emergency exits or had blocked emergency exits.

The report also found that some dormitories had narrow doors that compromised the safety of students in cases of emergency.

“It was observed that in some schools, dormitories were not locked all the time when learners were out which could have encouraged easy access by intruders,” reads the task force report.

The team also found that some dormitories were sometimes locked from outside when students were asleep to deter them from sneaking out of the school compound at night.

And in other cases, the keys to the dormitories were kept by students or watchmen contrary to the safety regulations which stipulated that keys be in the custody of dormitory masters/ mistresses or prefects.

“In some schools, the students who had the keys were the suspects in the arson cases,” reads the report.

Some Principals and education officers however attributed the congestion in school dormitories to increased demand for spaces in boarding secondary schools and pressure from Ministry to enrol more students during form one placement.

However, the team found that in other cases, schools rushed to admit boarders without adequate facilities.

The team carried out investigations in all the counties and visited 97 schools in 38 counties.

In the affected counties, it was established that in most cases, students were the main culprits in arson incidents and destruction of property.

Teachers, support staff and outsiders were also named in some cases.

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