Cases of unrest and arson in Kenyan schools have featured in the books of history for the last two decades.
Reports agree that boarding secondary schools are the most affected, painting the larger portion of the ugly image.
Research reminds us that between June and July of 2016 alone, almost 130 schools were torched.
Since the re-opening of schools for term two in October 2021, over 35 boarding secondary schools have been burnt down by students.
This happened within a period of less than two months.
All corners of the country have had a similar cry.
Vihiga Boys’ High School in Vihiga county, Buruburu Girls’ in Nairobi county, Kijabe Boys’ High School in Kiambu county, Amasago Boys’ High School in Kisii county and Kakamega High School in Kakamega county are a small portion of schools which have gone up in flames in the last few months.
Due to public outcry, the government sent primary and secondary school learners for a mid-term break from 19th to 23rd November 2021.
Over time, property worth millions of money has been swallowed by unabated school fires.
Hundreds of students have been hospitalized and yet others have died from these scenarios in the past.
Disturbing videos and photos of students escaping from burning dormitories have confirmed this.
Sadly, despite the long existence of the predictable patterns of burning schools, no solution has effectively curbed the behaviour.
The boat remains unbalanced.
What reports say
In 2017, Kenya’s Crime Research Centre released a June-July 2016 report on Rapid Assessment of Arsons in Secondary Schools in Kenya.
Peer pressure, exam phobia, extended second term dates, strict reforms initiatives by Education Cabinet Secretary, poor student – teacher relations, student indiscipline, drug and substance abuse, poor response to students’ concerns, exam leakage, poor living conditions in school and harassment by teachers were tagged major causes.
Different stakeholders: researchers, teachers, parents and students have since raised their voices on the evergreen subject.
However, as part of the 2017 report’s Problem Statement reads, “Each stakeholder has assigned different causes, adding to more bewilderment as schools continue to burn.”
Typically, the setting of Kenya’s boarding schools, which are subdivided into three major strata namely District, County and National Schools, raises one’s eyebrows.
The kids are locked up in a school environment for months.
Unable to see or be visited by parents and family, only the bright students find their way out of school for competitions in different spheres of excellence.
Writing for The Conversation, Teresa Wasonga, a researcher from the University of Illinois, paints the picture that, “students are organised under strict rules and singular authority.
Daily activities are carried out collectively on a rigid schedule of explicit order. Punishments are severe and consequences predictable – rebellion.”
The ongoing debate
In response to this year’s arson cases, parents have been blamed for their undisciplined children.
They have been called out for pampering their children instead of equipping them with moral values, advising them and instilling discipline in them.
The government and other stakeholders have argued that the root of the problem is in the family unit.
It is arguably true that parents have left the disciplinary part of child upbringing in the hands of the teachers.
Sadly, these teachers know very little about the students.
The Children Act 2001, revised in 2012, has also tied the teachers’ hands and the law has barred them from caning children.
The Kenyan government banned corporal punishment in Kenyan schools in 2001 by enacting the Children Act 2001, protecting children from all forms of physical and psychological abuse (though up to around 2018, the Act hasn’t been implemented).
In as much as we’re too quick to blame the children and their parents, it is important to consider the current bureaucratic nature of our schools.
In her research, Wasonga notes that boarding schools are not in themselves a problem, what happens in the schools is the problem and can be changed.
The introduction of the 100% transition to secondary schools is another new phenomenon being blamed for the arson cases.
Kenyan schools have many students yet the infrastructure hasn’t been significantly expanded.
Few, low-quality washrooms, congested dormitories, small playgrounds and congested classes define the life of most secondary school students in Kenya.
This makes the learners depressed.
Students have for a long time lamented that they’re being managed, not guided.
In most schools, students’ participation in the table of decision-making is insignificant and their views are almost never considered.
COVID-19 has worsened the situation.
Students, though staying and attending classes together, have been barred from co-curricular activities since “Covid-19 thrives in such activities”.
Young kids go to school even as early as 5 am.
Boarding students wake up at 4 am or earlier and sleep past 9 pm.
The compressed academic calendar has required teachers and students to cover so much of the syllabus within a very short time.
The youngsters are continually weighed down by academic burnout.
Hemmed in by these conditions, they yearn for freedom.
Notably, some have argued that the society has significantly contributed to arson cases.
The moral fabric of our society is very loose.
Currently, a child can do anything and a neighbour won’t even get bothered!
It is sad that vendors are selling petroleum, cigarettes and matchboxes to students in uniform, freely!
The society has taught children ignorance.
The public has also wrongly taught the younger generation that violence is the quickest solution to issues.
From political spheres to the medical sector, through to the teaching profession and general public, demonstrations and wanton destruction of property has been normalized when solutions are delayed!
When the schools’ structures go up in flames, property worth millions of money is razed down in minutes.
The government has reiterated that the parents will have to bear the brunt.
Education Cabinet Secretary, Prof. George Magoha has been clear on this.
“Anybody who is planning to burn the building, just remember that if you are caught, you are not going to go to any other school, definitely not a public school in this country,” Magoha reaffirmed.
“You will go back and ensure your parents contribute to the rebuilding of the school that you have burnt,” he added.
Parents raised deep concerns and took to court when Kakamega slapped them with a maintenance fee of Ksh. 9,823 per student for dormitory repairs.
The school claimed that property worth Ksh. 21m had been destroyed.
The school’s population is estimated at 2200 students.
“These figures came after our professional assessment of the burnt dormitory,” claimed Gerald Orina, the principal for Kakamega High School.
Buruburu Girls’ School in Nairobi had every student pay Ksh. 1500 for damages before reporting back to school.
Early Learning and Basic Education Principal Secretary Dr. Julius Jwan, in an interview response which featured in a press statement on November 15, said that the Education Ministry is usually involved in determining the amount each student should pay for such fire cases.
“The Ministry does not have allocation to finance infrastructure destroyed during unrest,” he added.
The PS was reiterated that parents have to bear the costs. However, these costs must be determined in consultation with the Public Works and Ministry officials.
“The expenses incurred by schools in mitigating unrest also come in. Boards may resolve to install CCTV systems or increase the number of guards,” the PS stated.
Parents have since tagged such expenses “overnight jackpots” aimed at aiding school boards reap big from them.
Any Way Out?
To balance the equation, a lasting, effective yet considerate solution has to be found.
The future of Kenyan students and pupils has to be redeemed.
Some have championed for open forums where parents, children and teachers will discuss these issues in an all-inclusive approach.
The Kisii County Principals have proposed privatization of boarding section in schools as an alternative measure in taming school fires.
The idea’s proponent is the heads’ chair, Joyce Orioki who doubles as the Principal for Nyabururu Girls, a national school in Kisii County.
Others, including Education CS Prof. Magoha and Interior CS Dr. Fred Matiang’i, have pressed for the reintroduction of the cane in schools.
Parents are still pondering the matter.