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Let public policy be backed up by solid evidence

By Abdinasir Amin | February 27th 2021

File, Standard

Every so often there is public outcry about our schools and disruptive behaviours that lead to damage and even loss of life. Schools again are in the public limelight because of students running amok, beating their teachers and burning down school premises. They are also demanding for reforms, from the postponement of exams to which they are not adequately prepared, transfer of an irksome principal or better meal plans.

And true to form, Kenyans have come out guns blazing with quick fix solutions. Why don’t we reintroduce corporal punishment to teach these petulant kids a lesson just like we were beaten when we were young?

Why not abolish boarding schools, which seem to be hotbeds of indiscipline? Why don’t we overhaul the curriculum altogether?

These suggestions come from a good place – we want the best for our children and the overall welfare of our society.

We want to raise upright citizens who will later contribute to the development of our country.

However, in the rub of these discussions, a critical point that is often missed is the role of evidence in public policymaking.

As you drive Junior to school, he with his latest games console and her with this month’s flame-red hairstyle fancy, you take a lot of things for granted. You both put on your seat belts.

The car probably has an airbag to protect your lives in case of a head-on collision with a crazy matatu. Most likely, if you smoke, you will avoid smoking in the car because Junior’s health might be affected by the noxious fumes from your favourite brand of cigarette. These items are backed up by evidence – there is strong evidence that seat belts protect lives and that smoking is linked to lung cancer.

Still, you do not want to expose the young ones to the smoking habit this early.

Further, if you had the means and they were available, you would probably line up to have Junior vaccinated against Covid-19 with a credible vaccine. It is doubtful that you would let a heathworker stick into Junior’s arm a vaccine of doubtful effectiveness.

But for broad public policies that affect millions of our lives and our children lives, we don’t hold our policymakers accountable on how they came to those policy decisions and most importantly if there is evidence to back up effectiveness.

The debate on corporal punishment in schools is not new. The cane was abolished in 2001 with the adoption of the Children’s Act which protects children from all forms of abuse and violence and entrenches a rights-based approach.

Many of the older folk were brought up with the adage; spare the rod and spoil the child. We are back again clamouring for reintroduction of corporal punishment, but we don’t ask the critical question - where is evidence that corporal punishment works?

The argument that “it has worked for me; just see how well I have turned out” does not hold in public policy making. Such anecdotes are fraught with what researchers term “confirmation bias.”

Your argument misses children that corporal punishment did not work for. The argument misses other crucial issues. Is corporal punishment the only disciplinary action open to the teacher?

What impact if any does such disciplinary action, have on the broader questions of overall wellbeing of the child and learning outcomes such as metrics around the emotional, psychological, and test scores?

In a nut-shell we should not be quick to re-adopt corporal punishment as a public policy to fix indiscipline in schools without carefully weighing up the evidence.

Further, solid evidence should be the yardstick for advancing national debate on other public policies, not just in education, but other sectors as well.


-The writer comments on political, cultural and social issues.

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