Why are boarding schools in Kenya literally going up in flames?

In February, an 18-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl was sentenced to five years in prison for burning down a school dormitory. Ten of his classmates died in the fire.

When she committed the crime, she was 14 years old and a first year student at the famous Moi Girls School in Nairobi.

It sounds horrible, but arson attacks by students in boarding schools are horribly common in Kenya. A recent BBC report called the pattern an epidemic.

In a recently published book, Elizabeth Cooper, a Canadian researcher who has spent nearly a decade studying the subject, estimates that between 2008 and 2018, an average of 75 schools caught fire each year.

Although some of these incidents have resulted in the death of students, they generally result only in structural damage, with dormitories being the most common targets. Cooper sees this as an indication that the students behind the fires are sending a message, albeit imprecise, that has yet to be honestly explored and to which stakeholders in the education sector have not responded.

In any case, Cooper and the authors of the BBC article speak cautiously about the problem, emphasizing its complexity, refraining from drawing specific conclusions about its causes and, even more rigorously, refusing to prescribe solutions. Their caution is not unjustified. Cooper is a Canadian, for her part, and therefore should not force her welcome; and the question is indeed complex, for another.

However, as a young Kenyan who, along with a large majority of my contemporaries, went through a public boarding school relatively recently, I can be honest: boarding schools in Kenya are down. Most of them are overcrowded slums for pubescent youths run by tyrannical teachers and encouraged by unhappy parents.

They should be phased out gradually.

It has not always been the case. Boarding schools in Kenya are as old as the country’s formal education system. European Christian missionaries established the first to provide stability for their students, whose villages were usually too far away for daily travel. This era produced some of the most successful and prestigious schools in the country.

Soon after independence, the Kenyan government took control of many of these schools and also established a number of new ones. Many have seen at school grasping a tragedy – and it most likely was. The biggest tragedy, however, is that the Kenyan government is doing a dismal job of running the schools. In the case of boarding schools, which have to cater for the full range of needs of large groups of growing and energetic children away from their parents, this has flatly failed and continues to fail.

The result is that, at least in recent decades, most boarding schools have not been adapted for human habitation. Children are herded into cramped dormitories with dirty walls, peeling paint and no running water. In the more affluent schools, which once had showers and real toilets, these facilities are rarely in working order. Overall the meals are of such poor quality that they barely qualify as human food.

Worse still, many boarding schools accept too many students for the size of their complexes, making them terribly overcrowded, with virtually no green space and no proper garbage disposal mechanism. Moreover, since there are too few teachers per student, many teachers resort to dictatorial techniques to establish any level of control.

All of this, combined with an almost one-dimensional obsession with exam results, to the detriment of all other aspects of a good education – such as sports and the arts – has turned Kenyan boarding schools into cauldrons of discontent for children who still lack sophistication or courage to identify and voice their grievances.

It was true when I was in high school. Not only is that still true now, but it has actually gotten worse. I know this because in the eleven years since I graduated from high school, I have been fortunate enough to visit many all-boys boarding schools across the country for personal reasons.

It’s amazing how the students put up with it, and the fact that most don’t end up burning down their schools is a testament to their adaptability.

What is even more incredible is that boarding schools still exist in such large numbers in Kenya (the Ministry of Education counts 4,000). Unlike the early days of formal education in Kenya, most villages and towns now have a high school within walking distance of every farm, at least in the highly populated southern third of the country.

Their survival depends on the belief that they are better than day schools, which is still shared by many people. This is not an easy task. Boarding schools eliminate the distractions of everyday life and, in a culture obsessed with exam results, give children ample time to study and prepare for tests. For girls, their importance is even more prescient; they are effective contraceptives – or at least parents believe they are.

However, it’s not like everyone agrees with me. Kenyans have been fighting over the future of boarding schools for ages, with good arguments for and against the idea. In recent years, this conversation has become much more heated. This is partly because the country is in the midst of a school curriculum transition, from one currently obsessed with testing to one focused on skill development and more parental involvement.

The first batch of students transitioning to high school (to a new middle school level) will do so in early 2023. In two years, they will then transition to high school. The Department of Education’s plan is that, with the exception of those living in deprived areas of the country, as few of these students as possible leave their homes to attend high school.

For the first time, it looks like the days of boarding schools in Kenya are indeed numbered. And that’s good. They have lost their relevance and we have long forgotten how to properly manage them. The only way to reform them is to phase them out.

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