To save lives, we should rethink safety standards in institutions

Student studying for the national exam, August 19, 2022. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

The recent disease outbreaks in schools requires urgent attention from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Teachers Service Commission, parents, and the community at large.

The 100 per cent transition policy from primary to secondary may have been a blessing in terms of raising completion rates but also has multiple negative effects on the health of learners especially in schools where not much was done in enhancing infrastructure.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that between 2016 and 2020, secondary school enrolment by class and gender grew by 8 per cent to about 3,520,000, out of which 50.3 per cent were girls. This increase was attributed to the government’s policy of ensuring 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school.

Crowding in schools has been an issue of great concern. The cause can be traced back to the introduction of Free Primary Education in 2003. The government wanted to ensure all Kenyans could go to school and abolished school fees.

As a result, enrolment in government primary schools increased by almost 1.3 million students in 2003, from 6 million in 2002 to 7.3 million in 2003. We are also seeing similar patterns in secondary schools, more so since the government, in 2018, sought to achieve a 100 per cent transition rate from primary to secondary school. This meant that in 2019, almost 200,000 more students transitioned to secondary school compared to 2018. Unfortunately, the growth is happening in already overstretched schools.

Crowding is also more common in schools in urban poor areas, where there are many more students and not enough schools. The crowding in these settings has led to parents seeking out low-fee private schools.

A study by the African Population and Health Research Center shows that on average almost half of the children from poor urban households in five major urban areas; Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nyeri, and Nakuru are enrolled in low-fee private schools. Crowding can have severe consequences on the quality of education and the safety of learners. Classes are larger and this usually leads to a drop in student performance because teachers do not have enough time to meet the individual learning needs of each child.

Safety concerns

Crowded classrooms and schools can also lead to poor student behavior – such as absenteeism or lack of interest – because teachers can’t control or monitor the behavior of all learners. In addition there are safety concerns in the schools. In emergency situations, crowding can make it hard to evacuate people safely.

While Kenya’s school safety guidelines call for disaster and emergency preparedness for all schools, response to any eventuality may be hampered when school sizes are large than usual.

Crowding can also lead to high rates of disease transmission, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. The recent unknown disease outbreak in a few schools that led to hundreds of learners being admitted to various hospitals, 16 of them in critical condition, and five deaths including that of a teacher are highly regrettable.

There should be concerted efforts from all stakeholders to avoid such unfortunate happenings. The Kenya National Union of Teachers’ takes the earliest opportunity to condole with the bereaved families and offer them prayers during this difficult and trying moment. May the souls of our departed learners and the teacher rest in eternal peace.

The government has taken steps to expand existing infrastructure and build new schools. But this hasn’t had much impact.

For instance, between 2012 and 2016, the number of public primary schools grew by just 13 per cent to 22,945. By comparison, private schools grew by 64.5 per cent. Public schools aren’t growing fast enough for the millions of students that need them.

The government should ensure that it can provide quality public education to all in line with SDG Agenda 4 and the Education for All (EFA) goals that promote quality and accessible education for all. Among the urban poor, low-fee private schools are used as a result of excessive public school demand and concerns over quality.

Huge numbers

There is a need to learn from countries that have managed to address the problem of huge numbers in schools. Sometimes this may require radical decisions such as adopting a double shift school system, where some learners school in the morning and others in the afternoon. This may, however, be relevant in areas where crowding is common and operation is on day schooling.

The government has set out safety standards for schools to ensure learners are not exposed to otherwise avoidable risks. These standards must be better enforced and monitored to ensure compliance. We must, as a country, learn to put in practice the measures we designed so as to experience positive outcomes other than being reactive to situations.

The government must work more with school administrators and communities to explore potential solutions given their understanding of the local contexts and needs. Losing one student or even one teacher is a huge blow to the sector! Let us save these lives.