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We shouldn’t normalise school fires and the dangers they pose

By Irungu Houghton | Dec 17th 2021 | 3 min read

A burning dormitory at Kakamega High School, November 6, 2021. [Benard Lusigi, Standard]

Wildfires across our schools has provoked a wide range of policy and procedural proposals from policymakers, teachers, parents, and students for the last several months.

The recently released Education Ministry guidelines for transforming schools left me encouraged this week. Woefully under-reported by the media, they deserve to be shared, discussed, and supported publicly. 

We must not normalise school fires and violence or minimise the dangers they introduce. We should also not ignore the other less visible signs of schools in distress. While substance abuse, underage drinking, exam cheating, sexual harassment and radicalisation do not create as sensational headlines, they are the small fires that need to be also confronted. 

Some observers have been tempted to blame either students, teachers, or parents. Single actor theories cannot explain the complex eco-system of teacher-pupil misconduct, pupil-pupil sexual harassment, child-parent estrangement or worse still, the outright rebellion in some of our schools today.

Our schools are at the centre of an epic battle for the national values, ethics, and rights in Article 10 of our constitution. 

On December 2, Education PS Julius Jwan released fourteen new guidelines framed within the Basic Education Act (2013) to respond to heightened public concern. The guidelines call for arson attacks to be reported to the law enforcement agencies as criminal matters and students suspected of arson attacks not to be allowed to transfer to other schools. 

All teachers must be registered and in good standing with the Teacher Service Commission and school principals and their deputies are now required to live on school campuses. Student psycho-social counselling services and extra-curricular activities will be expanded and school safety protocols, risk management, disaster emergency response plans are now mandatory. Schools will be encouraged to activate clubs that explore diversity, peaceful co-existence, and dispute resolution. 

The guidelines take beating students into submission off the table thankfully. However, closer policy attention is needed to what to do with minors out on bail.

The presumption of innocence until proven guilty will be predictably legally invoked should they lose the right to education during their cases. The guidelines are also silent on how to manage increasingly complaint and legal suits from parents whose children were not implicated in the attacks being communally compelled to finance the restoration of buildings. 

Having seen the power of school human rights clubs first-hand, the emphasis on school clubs is very welcome. For at least a decade, a diverse range of peace, human rights and anti-corruption organisations have worked with teachers and administrators to break down complex human rights principles of hope, respect for diversity, non-violence and responsible citizenship to girls and boys.

It is significant that none of the schools with human rights clubs supported by Amnesty International Kenya experienced arson attacks in 2020 or 2021. 

Legendary African American educationalist Bell Hooks died this week. She leaves behind an impressive legacy of feminist enquiry into power, learning and societal transformation. Her essay Teaching Community: A Pedagogy could have been written exclusively for policymakers, teachers and parents grappling with the future of education in Kenya. 

Hooks’s main argument is that the feelings of cynicism, despair and being dominated are the real matchsticks. Human beings who have no vision or hope for themselves, are most likely to rebel and destroy all around them. Schools run like prisons and classes that teach by rote and regurgitation make rebellion inevitable. People who burn their facilities and the only resources they have are those that have fundamentally lost their relatedness to their community. It is this isolation and alienation we must address also. 

Our 32,354 schools must become spaces for critical thinking, affirmation, and freedom. Rather than rely on ineffective authoritarian models, let’s invest in progressive curricula that creates connections and communities in and around our schools.Let’s support these Education ministry guidelines and quell the fires in the hearts of our students and schools across the nation in 2022. 

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