Debate over schools that give big rewards to top students

John Kimani Kamau stands next to his grand prize - a car he won for being the top student at Nairobi School in the 2008 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination - during the awards ceremony on April 3, 2004. The school has since changed its reward policy and last year’s top student, Antony Mbugua Kariuki, did not win a car.

What you need to know:

  • While Nairobi School gives a car to its top student each year, Alliance and many schools have a cash reward

Three years ago, Anthony Mbugua Kariuki, 17, watched as the best Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education candidate in his school — Nairobi School — received a brand new car.

He vowed that he would be the one to drive away in the top prize in the 2010 KCSE class.

The annual prize for top KCSE student in Nairobi School for the last three years, the car was the most powerful motivation for the KCSE candidates. So powerful was the lure that it raised the competition among the students a notch higher.

Mbugua survived the intense competition to emerge the school’s top KCSE candidate last year, scoring straight As in all of the eight subjects.

Besides topping his class, Kariuki was also placed number 21 in the top 100 candidates ranking nationally.

He had earned his car.

And on a warm Wednesday morning early this month, Mbugua’s entire family — his parents, siblings, aunts and uncles — accompanied him to Nairobi School to witness one of their own receive the hard earned prize.

But the car presentation never happened.

The school management told the disappointed young man that the rewarding rules had been changed; to get a car, a candidate had to appear on the top 10 in national KCSE ranking.

“I felt hurt; I had really worked hard to get that car,” said Mbugua.

“For the last three years, the best candidate always got a car. Why did they suddenly change the rules?”

Principal Cleophas Tirop says the school did not change the rules — rising competition for top KCSE grades did. With more and more KCSE candidates across the country scoring straight As, schools like Nairobi School are beginning to raise the bar for top prizes.

“It is no longer sustainable to award a car to the best student in the school, we have to raise the bar a little higher,” said Mr Tirop.

So instead of giving a car to the best candidate in the school, the institution decided that only those who made it to top 10 in national ranking deserved the expensive prize.

More than 100 kilometres away, another school had also promised its best KCSE student an irresistible prize.

The Parents Teachers Association of Kanjuri High School in Nyeri promised a brand new motorcycle for any candidate scoring a clean A in the national examination.

Like in Nairobi School, the school administration in Kanjuri says the prize drove the competition among students to a whole new level.

In 2009, the school got its first straight A, which was promptly rewarded with a brand new motorcycle worth Sh75,000.

Last year, the number of straight As shot to four, and the PTA had to dig deeper into the parents’ pockets to buy four new motorcycles.

And if the number of straight As continues to rise, Kanjuri High School principal Elijah Nguyo says, the PTA might have to raise the bar a little higher.

“We are foreseeing a situation where more students score straight As,” says Mr Nguyo.

“Then we might be forced to change the rules, for example we might reward only those candidates who make it to the top 100 in KCSE national ranking.”

The bar is already raised in students‘ rewarding scheme in the country’s top school, Alliance.

According to principal David Kariuki, the school reserves a top prize of Sh10,000 only for students whose names appear on list of top KCSE scorers nationally.

“We do not reward everyone who scores an A; we reward what we call printed As — those that appear on the national ranking,” says Mr Kariuki.

This year, old students of Alliance paid Sh300,000 for 30 candidates who made it to the top 100 positions in 2010 KCSE examination.

Prof Inoonda Mwanje, a former Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR), warns that student rewarding schemes currently run in many schools across the country risk collapsing at some point, generating unnecessary levels of mistrust between school authorities and the students they seek to motivate.

And when they do collapse, the university don warns that the levels of motivation among students will hit rock bottom, reversing gains made over the years.

According to the professor, schools that are serious in sustaining a comprehensive student-rewarding scheme must invest in special income-generating funds to sustain the rewards over the years.

They must also refrain from what he describes as elitist rewards such as cars.

“If schools think they can get money for annual prizes from charging extra fees or even ad hoc fund raising, they are wrong — it is not sustainable in the long run,” says Prof Mwanje.

The nature of the prizes, the don advises, should be negotiated by all the parties involved — including the students.

Even when the school management seeks to change the nature and manner of the reward, it must involve the students in the decision.

“Changing the rules of rewarding without consulting the students can be psychologically damaging for the students,” warns Prof Mwanje.

For Mbugua, the sudden change of rewarding rules at Nairobi School has left him feeling cheated. So much that the Sh3,000 Uchumi Supermarket gift voucher, the consolation prize that he received instead of a car, still lies in his room unspent.

He will be embarking on the next level of education with near nil motivation.