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Radical changes needed in the management of national high schools

 If your plan is for one year, plant rice.If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children” – Confucius

Thankfully, the revelations about bullying at Alliance High School have generated debate about the management of education in Kenya. For many decades, this school has been at the top of academic performance and so the reports came as a shock to many.

The question in the public domain is: how can it be that we pick the brightest pupils in the country and take them to such a cruel institution? Is that the reward children get for working hard for eight years and coming out on top of everyone else?

This is a wake-up call that should prompt us to ask a more fundamental question: what makes a national school special? I don’t believe that it is the excellent performance in national examinations.

I do not accept the widely held notion that national schools teach better than the “ordinary” ones. After all, all teachers are provided by the same organisation (Teachers Service Commission) and are trained in the same universities and colleges.

All public schools, national or otherwise, face the same infrastructural problems: Congested classrooms and dormitories; inadequate and poorly equipped laboratories; under stocked libraries; and so on and so forth.

In terms of funding, the story is the same. All public secondary schools (national or otherwise) get Sh12,870 from the government under the Free Day Secondary Education programme and parents pay Sh53,544 per pupil per year.

Therefore, when everything is considered, it is clear that national schools are only unique in two ways: first, they have very large pupil populations (seven streams per form) and, second, they admit only the top students from each county.

There is nothing fundamentally special or unique about these schools. In fact, the revelations of bullying at Alliance High School demonstrate that things might even be worse than in the other “lower” schools!

This state of affairs did not start recently. Thirty years ago (the early 1980s), I was an O-Level pupil at an “ordinary” provincial school.  It was well-equipped and we never lacked anything – there were more than enough teachers, exercise and text books, fully equipped laboratories and workshops etc.

 I later transferred to one of the top national schools for A-Levels and I was shocked by the lack of facilities. We had no chemistry teacher for the entire first year (fifth form). The form-six class ahead of us had no math teacher. The laboratories did not have enough equipment for students to do experiments on their own. And so on…

Still, we were able to secure a place in the top 10 at the national exams. This wasn’t a result of exceptional teaching; it was because we had been carefully sieved through two examinations (the primary and O-Level) and only “the best of the best” were admitted to the national school. What other outcome would be expected?

As a nation, we must ask whether we want this state of affairs to continue. My view is that we must change the way national schools are managed so that they can become centres of excellence.

I have deliberately avoided using the phrase “centres of academic excellence” for a reason. I believe that our schools have deteriorated because of too much focus on academics and grades. To paraphrase the holy book, “the love of grades is the root of all kinds of evil”, including bullying!

National schools should be turned into model institutions that operate strictly under special regulations. For example, they should never have more than 30 pupils in a classroom; beds in dormitories must never be less than 2m apart; laboratories must have always have enough equipment for each pupils to conduct experiments on his/her own; and so on.

Since they admit only the best, national schools should turn away from academic drilling and focus more on building character: that is, discipline, integrity, honesty, honour, respect and so on. But these are not lessons that can be taught in class; they are learnt by children from the way they are treated by adult caregivers – in this case, the teachers.

The financial structure of these schools also needs to be reviewed. We should consider abolishing all fees and instead increase the government funding to say, Sh100,000 per pupil per year. This would ensure that the children never lack anything – not even uniforms and pocket money.

The total funding for all the 150,000 pupils in the 120 national schools would come to about Sh15 billion annually. It’s not too much when we consider that we are not growing rice or planting trees: we are educating our children!

We must make these fundamental changes so that we stop producing ordinary people who merely fit in this rotten world and, instead, start preparing visionary leaders who will change it to make life better for everyone in the coming 100 years.