Schools debate should go beyond boarding and CBC

Pupils at Mama Ngina Children's Home in Nairobi prepare to depart for boarding school in Bungoma on January 2, 2020. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

We love costly drama. Once the contentious issue of domiciling junior secondary school was settled, we got a new one. Boarding.

The next debate will be on the number of schools’ layers - most likely primary, middle school and high school each with its administration even if they are in the same compound. That’s 'job creation'  in Kenya.

Let’s focus on an old question; should we have boarding schools? We add another subsidiary question, should our schools be mixed or not?

Let’s start with boarding schools. Why is it a contentious issue?

It’s more about money than bringing up children. Check the money student pay for boarding. Add the transport costs, the shopping, pocket money and other expenses. Investors in the sector see losses.

But if you think broadly, boarding schools are a burden to parents. But they choose to pay because it so happens that leading schools both public and private are boarding.

Parents see boarding schools as an investment with good returns. Despite joblessness, we still see good education as the surest road to upward mobility.

That remains a fact even in developed countries. Many parents believe that a boarding school leads to a greater focus on studies and better performance in life.

The only problem is that boarding schools remove students from reality. They will rarely live like that after school. It would be better to get used to real life with their communities.

Others see boarding schools as good conduits for parents to escape responsibility. I have seen kids going to board in class one till high school. How do they bond after that?

Others believe boarding schools are good at making students responsible and self-reliant - away from the house helps and parents. They think you learn better how to swim from the deep end!

Let’s be blunt, there is some prestige associated with boarding schools. Leaving home, wearing the uniform, being visited, and having some independence. Some of the top private schools like Eton are boarding.

Boarding schools are rare in the West. Children stick to their school districts and usually leave after high school to go to university.

Transport is provided, and you rarely see school children running to or from school. One of the often overlooked advantages of boarding schools is creating diversity.

Lasting memories

You can school with kids from anywhere in the country or world. That was one of my lasting memories of going to a boarding school. Never mind the cultural shock once you leave the comfort of your home.

Think of kids coming to Nairobi for the first time. Boarding schools are a British phenomenon which might have origins in colonialism and military adventurism.

Colonialists could work anywhere as their kids went to boarding school. Lots of mzungus who lived in Kenya talk of being shipped to schools very early in their lives.

From a social point of view, it would make sense to abolish boarding schools. Parents will become parents again.

But from an academic point, parents must learn to become part of their children’s education, beyond feeding and sheltering them. Remember complaints over CBC? Well managed, there would be more equity and access to education through boarding.

Would the government use the boarding money to enhance learning and teaching, integrating more ICT and a more enriched curriculum? Ending boarding should be gradual, starting with the next intake.

Another contentious issue is whether schools should be mixed or not. Like boarding schools, there is a misplaced belief that single-sex schools perform better.

No one has concrete evidence that separating boys and girls leads to better performance. There are still exceptions like Moi High School, Kabarak and most international schools.

Mixing boys and girls lead to distraction, is the belief. They argue that hormones are at the highest level of activity and that students will focus more on relationships than schooling.

This is an excuse. If you keep students busy with games and other activities, they will have no time for mischief. Distraction comes because of idleness.

Keeping girls and boys separate often creates future problems. Once they are left to themselves, boys and girls often do not know how to interact and we know the consequences.

The boarding debate is distracting us from more serious issues like the content to be taught, the funding of the school and why we go to school. We went to school to escape poverty and the drudgery of the countryside. Our children are after fulfilment and self-actualisation.

Do we address that? We had no technology, for our children it is their way of life. No wonder they say school is boring because it is not technology intensive.

Modern parents

We also found schools better than homes with TV, bread, mattresses, shoes and other items we take for granted today. My former teacher Mr Magare used to remind me that after working hard in school, we shall take bread with marmalade which I thought was Mama Lade. I used to wonder who Lade was!

Add the fact that schools were traditionally driven by religion - they are still sponsored by churches. Yet modern parents and their children are less religious. And asking in good faith, why do some schools have names of saints? Are parents and other stakeholders consulted?

We got assured of jobs after campus, but not anymore. Given these changes, we must find a new purpose for schools.

We are not the first generation to face that problem.That is why the presidential working party on education should not stop after giving the report. We must constantly retool our education to meet the needs of our society.

We must constantly inject reality into our education. To quote John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself.”