Draconian Steps to Peace

Two quotes from the principal secretary of education sum up some real problems at the heart of the latest turmoil affecting education in Kenya.

We took those steps to ensure that students sit examinations in a conducive environment… the changes introduced this year in a bid to curb cheating in national examinations were not negotiable.

It’s not working, unless you classify smouldering ruins as a “conducive environment”.

Kenyan secondary students are burning down their schools again. At the alarming rate, around 90 different institutions in the past two months and still counting.

In an effort to stop cheating in end of year exams, which is widespread in (but not unique to) Kenya, the Education minister decided students should be treated like criminals. The yearly calendar was changed with little notice. Term two extended, term break reduced. Third term students were to have no contact with the outside world.

He banned all social activities in third term—including prayer days, visiting, half term breaks, sports, prize-giving ceremonies and annual general meetings…”

The approach has been so in-effective that within hours of the minister addressing students at one high school, they set it on fire.

Teachers, parents and unions are calling for dialogue with the government. Little chance of that happening. Takes too long and they’ve no intention of listening to you anyway.

This scenario is a real problem in the education system where strife between the government and teachers is always just an insult away and students are blamed for everything.

Authority is draconian. Negotiation desire and skills both sadly lacking. In the case of students, they are “seen but not heard”. Given the nature of the measures against them it is easy to see why they are upset. But there is much more to it than this latest decree from the Education department.

There are deep divisions between government, teacher and student bodies. Apart from schools lacking resources, there is also a lack of sufficiently educated, motivated and caring teachers across the country. The failure rate in Kenyan high schools is appalling with around 65% of students failing their final exams every year. It can’t all be their fault.

In a BBC report on this subject a parent called for corporal punishment to be re-introduced. Maybe they have never visited their child’s school or listened to their child’s concerns, but it never left. Though it is outlawed, students are routinely beaten, often severely, some die. They are beaten for failing to achieve targets set by the teachers, beaten for minor discipline issues, beaten if they question why they are being beaten.

I have dealt with over twenty high schools, of all standards and categories, and these themes are common to them all. No-one is doing anything about it. The children are not innocent here but they are already blamed for the failures within the system and now they are taking the brunt of the Education department’s frustration with its inability to tackle cheating.

Why light the fires though? Why burn down your school? An editorial in a national paper, the Daily Nation, had some insight into the practise. It asked the question “What do the adults of our nation do when they are unhappy and take to the streets to protest?” They lights fires, destroy property and throw stones at anyone who tries to stop them.

Most high schools are boarding. It is still considered the preferable way to educate young adults here. So, children leave home, barely into their teens, and enter an environment rife with bullies, from the traditional student type, to the fully grown teacher type. They are isolated from home, friends and community influence, and enter a system that doesn’t want to hear what they think or feel, just blames them for every failure in that system, and there are many.

Something is going to crack sooner or later and when it does, it follows the examples that society sets.

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