The closure of Moi Girls High School in Eldoret following a students’ strike is a clarion call for reforms in our boarding schools. Students accused the school leadership of corruption and mismanagement, including intimidation of teachers and support staff, power outages, lack of textbooks, poor dining conditions, and general neglect of student welfare.
Most Kenyans would agree that these problems are not limited to Moi Girls Eldoret. They exist in nearly every public school – from local day schools to the very top national schools.
It is high time we honestly addressed the governance problems and the poor state of facilities in our schools.
At the core of the problem is our refusal to reform our mode of delivering education. We are still stuck in the historical model of top-down education delivery, with the goal of producing subservient workers programmed to tolerate all manner of indignities.
It is evident in the quality of the curriculum (both old and new), school dormitories, dining facilities, and the state of classrooms. Like at Moi Girls, students across the country see these problems and are deeply affected by our collective failure to address them. Crowded dormitories and poor facilities dehumanise students, and condition them to accept mediocrity as a matter of course.
Rampant intimidation of subordinates (sometimes in front of students) and blatant corruption reinforce the idea that unchecked abuse of power and graft is an acceptable way of life as long as you have power. The leadership in our schools should be disabused of the notion that they can engage in observable bad behaviour and yet retain the authority to moralise to students. Authority is earned. Reactions to the Moi Girls student protest have revealed the scars of passing through our school system. Many commentators seemed to insinuate that the students were spoilt brats exaggerating the problems they claim exist at their school. Afterall, they went through the same problems and turned out “fine.” This is a classic case of survivor bias.
Just because one survived a poorly designed and cruel system does not mean that others would do as well. Back in the day, attending a prestigious boarding school like Moi Girls Eldoret was the pinnacle of achievement. Many students were therefore willing to endure a lot, if only to do well at national examinations and earn a spot at university.
Things have changed. For a variety of reasons, current high school students are more willing to express their multi-dimensionality. They are also less willing to tolerate the idea that while in school they should shut up and just focus on scoring As in the national examinations.
Surprisingly, the above sentiments came from, among others, well-educated individuals whose children attend boarding schools of questionable quality. What does it say about us that well-to-do parents are willing to let their children live in crowded dormitories or endure mistreatment by teachers? Have we not learned any lessons from the litany of tragedies that have visited out schools over the years?
It is no wonder that parents who are willing to expose their own children to all manner of abuse in schools are also willing to tolerate poor performance in other spheres of life.
Our collective tragedy as a country is that our schools operate as if they are designed to reproduce the same tolerance for low standards (and associated gratuitous cruelty). The same low standards of facilities are prevalent at our universities and tertiary institutions. The only way to break the cycle is by listening to our students. They are not willing to tolerate mediocrity, and neither should their parents.
-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University