What abolishing boarding primary schools means

Saving time, offering better infrastructure, enhancing child's independence and promoting intercultural interactions, boarding primary schools in Kenya have been a go-to for parents working or staying far from their families, enabling them to seamlessly undertake their duties while their children are cared for at school. The plan to abolish the boarding section will burst the bubble.

Girls in a dormitory at Naikarra Primary School in Narok. Pupils can board at the school or attend as day-scholars. The Education Ministry, through the Basic Education PS Dr. Belio Kipsang, announced plans to abolish the boarding section in primary schools starting January next year. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Girls in a dormitory at Naikarra Primary School in Narok. Pupils can board at the school or attend as day-scholars. The Education Ministry, through the Basic Education PS Dr. Belio Kipsang, announced plans to abolish the boarding section in primary schools starting January next year. PHOTO/Courtesy.

“Day primary schools are better than boarding primary schools,” the primary school teacher would pose and regroup us to carry on with the debate.

A similar debate has been honest and ongoing in the minds and circles of parents, pupils, and other stakeholders since Basic Education Principal Secretary (PS) Dr. Belio Kipsang announced plans to abolish the boarding system from Grade 1 to Grade 9 from next year January.

PS Kipsang announced the planned move during the official opening ceremony of the 18th Kenya Primary School Heads Association (KEPSHA) on December 6, 2022, at Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Primary School in Mombasa.

While some are for it, others are against the idea and each faction is trying to convince the other on whether or not this is the best strategy and time to unleash such a weighty plan.

Typically, many issues make or force parents to send their children to boarding schools: better infrastructure, education and work commitments, better security, to enhance child’s independence, and also because the child may have nowhere to stay and school from.

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In a four-day debate on the digital forum, the scholars dissected the intent to abolish boarding primary schools, placing all facets of the dice on the weighs to determine whether the decision will benefit or hurt the academic, social and mental lives of the young learners and other education stakeholders or will turn out to be a well-timed move.

Why the abolishment?

According to PS Kipsang, “We must create a way in which we can be with our children, and the only way is through day-schooling.”

A whopping 28% of Kenya’s learners in basic education are in boarding schools, according to the PS, which stands way above the global average rate of 15%, setting Kenya on top of the list.

According to Julius Melly, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Education, parents have left their responsibilities to the teachers. 

“Many parents wish that all their children be in boarding schools. Many of us don’t know our children. Let all the schools be day schools,” he said recently.

The already famous plan, therefore, lies against the backdrop of trimming the boarding numbers and getting children back to their parents.

However, the scholars hold divergent opinions, taking the matter with a weightier approach and thinking about it through examples of other countries that have adopted the same path.

For instance, “There were imperatives that made boarding schools necessary: distance, infrastructure, human resource, and cultural integration, among others. Are those imperatives, or which one of them is no longer applicable?

There used to be no boarding facilities for below class four learners, a stage at which parents and guardians would have bestowed some of the basic values. Boarding facilities were not surrogates for parenting; they were just adjuncts,” says Prof. Augustino Onkware from the University of Eldoret.

However, those who have had kids in boarding schools have different stories.

“I had a Grade 6 child; I am so happy with the government. 6 years in boarding school is total torture. We can manage with 3,” says Prof. Abednego Gwaya.

Has the time come to round off the boarding section, or will the top brains challenge the move in all ways possible?

Parental warmth

Until Grade 9, a child’s life is in “… the bonding phase with the parents. It’s precious time to bond with and mold your child. We need to get to their heart as the good book says early in life, than try to speak with someone who locks themselves in the bedroom all day or has earphones all day and has no attachment to you as a parent,” says Bernadette Karanja, Managing Director E-Hub Africa.

Research says that children develop social skills from a young age by interacting with parents, teachers, relatives, and other fellows.

The interaction plays a vital role in the personality development of the child. However, in today’s society, the parent is at a dividing line because the Internet is also doing its ‘parenting’.

While children’s bad behavior may be heavily attributed to rogue parenting, “I believe that our children learn more of the “bad” habits from the Internet than from boarding schools. And the Internet is more available out here, than in the boarding schools,” comments Prof. Onkware.

“It’s a great one; it should come to pass. Teachers understand our kids more than us parents. I have realized that our kids have three very distinct ‘characters’: what the teacher knows is very different from what the parent knows and completely detached from what the peers know about the same child,” says Titus Mbatha, Marsabit County Education Director.

Most people also believe that parents have left the parenting part to the teacher, paid for educating the child but not parenting them.

“It’s sad how we have delegated parenting to teachers, grandparents, nannies, TV, YouTube and social media. There’s no higher responsibility given to us by God than that of raising our children. That’s our solemn duty which we either honor, or dishonor,” says Advocate Ratemo Ombui.

Sadly, not all children have the luxury of parents, or at least, caring parents.

Actually, “Some children come from dysfunctional homes. Boarding schools have always been a haven for such children, with well-wishers’ support. Often, boarding schools have provided a conducive learning environment for such cases,” according to Simon Mogaka from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

Such students risk failing and experiencing mental turmoil from environments they created not, and an academic system that doesn’t appreciate that, according to John Sewe, Senior Principal Tonga Boys, Homabay.

Mind you, some parents stay abroad and others are in the police force, where they cannot keep traveling with their children. 

“In areas like Narok where schools are several kilometers apart, how will kids survive? How are children of nomadic public officers expected to cope with their parents’ frequent transfers in terms of going to school?” wonders Dr. Erick Wara, Principal Moi Naikarra Secondary, Narok.

In his paper, written in 2016 amid near-epidemic school fires under the title Chaos in Kenyan SchoolsSome Considerations for Action, Dr. Charles Nyanchama, a Canadian-based Kenyan Publisher, explained that parents have had the most minimal time possible with their children, pointing it out as one of the causes of indiscipline children lacking the parental guidance since birth.

Adding that typical Kenyan children are taken to boarding schools even from 10 years of age, he challenged the society that what the children are is a reflection of what they see and interact with.

“Let’s be truthful to ourselves! Our children are largely brought up by maids and television, in addition to what they learn from their peers, teachers and staff in school! They imbue that which they watch happen: our society’s bad manners, with respect to corruption, impunity and all,” he wrote.

Still on parenting, “Is there any university student or graduate who has lamented that there’s something they lack because they weren’t cared for by parents? On the flip side, have all those of us who learnt in day schools exhibited excellent predispositions that should be envied?” asks Dr. Wara. Maybe, maybe not. Think about it.

Cost implications

Kenya National Union of Teachers Secretary-General Collins Oyuu defended the move, arguing that parents strain to pay boarding costs for their children to remain in school. 

Basic Education Principal Secretary Dr. Belio Kipsang leads distribution exercise of 2022 Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Examination materials at Westlands sub-county, Nairobi County. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Basic Education Principal Secretary Dr. Belio Kipsang leads the distribution exercise of 2022 Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Examination materials at Westlands sub-county, Nairobi County. PHOTO/Courtesy.

“The idea being propelled in the education sector is to make education affordable. Boarding schools are expensive,” stated Oyuu.

However, he urged the government to implement the plan in phases.

Countries like Japan, the United Kingdom, and parts of America have indeed exceptionally few boarding primary schools. However, the day schools are well equipped to provide the required academic skills to day scholars, just as the boarders get.

While some argue that boarding primary schools have been overcharging parents, different voices respond that nobody forces any parent to take their children to such schools and the payment burden squarely lies on the parents’ shoulders.

“Make boarding section private and let parents choose. We have such arrangements in some of our public schools,” says Christopher Osinde, the Education Secretary, Catholic Diocese of Kisii.

While you may think that boarding schools are more expensive than day schools, this is “… a false narrative that has been bandied around this country,” claims Dr. Wara.

Turning to economies of scale, he adds that a basic calculation of the day scholar’s food, travel cost, and other regular expenses places the child’s expenditure to about KSh 44, 500 every year, relative to the standard KSh 45 000 a boarding pupil pays a year.

According to Charles Ochego, Principal Cheptenye Boys Kericho, such calculations can guide policymakers in their policy formulation.

“We want the best for them and that best for now is in boarding. There’s a narrative being pushed that parents want to run away from their parenting responsibility and leave it to be undertaken by teachers. Some parents walk barefoot because they have invested in what they regard best for their children,” argues Clement Nyangacha, Chief Principal Ugenya High School, Siaya.

Though they may seem physically absent from the children, their efforts in supporting the youngsters’ education must be credited.

In a personal experience, Caleb Atemi, Author, Media Trainer and PR Consultant, says, “I never used to support boarding schools until I lost my job. 

I struggled even with daily meals; sometimes, I couldn’t drop kids at school for lack of fuel, or we got stuck in traffic because the fuel tank had run dry. I could see the suffering taking a toll on them; I moved them to boarding school and we all had peace.”

CBC Facilitation

With the Competency-Based Curriculum training learners on the how part of doing things, parental involvement comes in handy.

Effacing boarding section in Grades 1-9 will facilitate parental involvement as the pupils go home daily.

“The major reason why it is necessary to stay with children is because of CBC. Many take-homes are supposed to be guided by parents or guardians. There is a lot of parental involvement in CBC and if the learner is boarding, the teacher can’t act teacher and parent. This is a value-based and core-competency curriculum. To be effected, as parents we have to do our part by interacting with our children to ensure learners at home practice what they learn at school,” says Ruth Nyaboke, Deputy Headteacher Kianyabinge DOK Primary School, Kisii. 

On the flip side

“There are many kids that will halt their education in the unlikely event that boarding schools were abolished. They are rescued from early marriages or domestic violence often by their parents or step parents. Some are total orphans with no suitable homes or accommodation and have nowhere to go. … some parents choose to send their children to boarding schools, and that choice has a place in a democracy,” explains Prof. Edward Ontita from the University of Nairobi.

The move has come when these institutions have heavily invested in boarding facilities, whether in public or private schools.

Therefore, “Which way with boarding facilities in these schools?” wonders Prof. Onkware.

Overworked teachers

With the boarding schools aiming at saving time by using it maximally, the pupils sleep late and wake up early in the morning. The teachers, being their chaperons, have to lead the way and keep them engaged. The straining, which is not part of what the employer pays the teachers for, is another thorn in the flesh.

“We are tired of boarding schools where teachers are in school even on Saturdays and Sundays. When will they enjoy their freedom of worship? Let boarding schools be scrapped, even in secondary schools,” says Samuel Opiyo, Principal Tabaka Boys’.

How’s it elsewhere?

With the PS having noted that we are almost double the boarding school numbers commonplace globally, could the desire to conform to the global best practice be another pressure behind this? Maybe. 

“However, we don’t just wake up one day and declare that in the next one month we won’t have boarding schools just because we want to conform to global standards. When phasing something out, it should be a gradual process, with public participation,” advises Nyangacha.

Dr. Charles Nyandusi, the Chair Nyamira County Education Board, adds that even though we may borrow or be inspired by ‘global best practice’, we have to adapt our innovations to local contexts and implement them within the local reality frameworks.

Kenya’s institutions are totally unbalanced in infrastructure and training levels; forcing boarders to become day-scholars might snatch their future from their hands.

However, “If all schools had the same conditions, we would demand our children become day scholars even today,” says Alfred Nyamwange, author and Deputy Principal, Bong’onta Secondary School.

Freedom of choice

“Article 10 of the Constitution of Kenya provides for public participation when making or implementing public policy decisions. That has not been done concerning the planned abolition of the boarding component of primary school education in Kenya. 

Article 53 of the same Constitution and the Children Act 2021 require that whatever decisions are made affecting Children must be made by reference to the child’s best interest. Many health, safety, psychological, intellectual and moral issues and benefits support the retention of boarding facilities for children in primary schools. 

Boarding facilities are workplace homes for the convenience of pupils. The cost of boarding is borne by parents/guardians, not the government. Why is the government interfering with private choices and decisions of parents,” elucidates Dr. Stephen Mangerere of JKUAT.

“… parents should be left to choose where their children school; boarding or day schools. We don’t live in a homogeneous environment and lifestyle. No policy should be pushed down our throats!” exclaims Yonah Nyakoe, Principal, Kaporuso Secondary School, Bomet.

Furthermore, “The notice is too short for us parents; as for me, my children school in a different county from where I hustle. Either way getting transfers will be tedious. Let it be a blank cheque; you choose what suits you,” adds Joash Orora.

“I think the PS was misquoted. Boarding schools can’t just be abolished. Such a move requires public participation, just like CBC. Boarding schools are with us to stay,” thought Benard Orwasa, TSC Sub-county Director Ugenya Sub-County.

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“The handling of this boarding issue indicates that the education system and all other sectors need a continual improvement mechanism with clear periodic review timeliness. That way, all policy changes will be handled with better preparedness and engagement,” said Vincent Sagwe, a former minister in Kisii County.

Beyond the anticipated better parenting, numbers and cost reduction, a conversation on whether there exist any other research-backed benefits of day schools over boarding schools should be kindled.

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Mr. Makau holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics, Media & Communication from Moi University, Kenya. He is a Columnist and Editor with Scholar Media Africa, with a keen interest in Education, Health, Climate Change, and Literature. His contact: b.makau@scholarmedia.africa.


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