School fires are a call for dialogue from students

tudents of Kaimosi Boys High School in Vihiga County search their boxes to salvage valuables after a fire razed their dormitory on July 15, 2016. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • We have had the worst fire scenarios in the history of this country, and the recent trend by fires in school have got nothing to do with extension of term dates nor poor management by the Cabinet Secretary.

  • To me, the ‘explanations’ are part of the symptoms in much the same way that the fires that they seek to explain are, because beneath them is the usual tendency to blame others without facing the problem squarely.

  • One way of doing this is to ensure that there are independent arbiters between students and their school administrators. The traditional ways where teachers view and conduct themselves as the ultimate authority as far as students’ concerns go have now been overtaken by time.

Let’s face it. Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i stirred the waters when he confronted the status quo in the education sector.

He disbanded the Kenya National Examination Council and formed a water tight body that sealed all the avenues of examination cheating. The beneficiaries of earlier anomalies were alarmed.

He then went for the text books issue, which was an avenue for corruption. The conservative forces in the ministry got alarmed, too.

Dr Matiang’i’s approach is simple: Breaking the chains that have undermined the quality of education in this country.

We have had the worst fire scenarios in the history of this country, and the recent trend by fires in school have got nothing to do with extension of term dates nor poor management by the Cabinet Secretary.

It is the conservatives fighting back, to make the minister look like an underperformer in the eyes of the public.

But what did we expect. Just the other day, we branded him as ‘Kenya’s Magufuli’ due to his hands-on approach to issues.

But to change the system, a price tag has to be attached to it, and the recent wave of fires in school is just that price.

The same conservative forces are skewing the theory to make Dr Matiangi look like the culprit, yet we all know that is not true.

National news outlets have, of late, been awash with instances of school facilities being razed down by largely inexplicable fires. Some of these have allegedly been caused by students acting in cahoots with other members of society. The trend has become so worrying because of its scale.

At the same time, there have been all sorts of theories advanced by some people to explain this unfortunate trend. Some say the trend is caused by increasing indiscipline in schools due to abolition of corporal punishment, while others attribute the behaviour to the heavy workload that students are made to bear. There have been more explanations: Draconian administration styles by head teachers, the extended term dates, and so on.

INDEPENDENT ARBITERS

While some or all these explanations may be valid, they remain inadequate to the extent that they have not been interrogated to unravel what lies beneath them. In any case, most of these are speculations from educational practitioners, sociologists and counsellors — but not from the concerned students.

To me, the ‘explanations’ are part of the symptoms in much the same way that the fires that they seek to explain are, because beneath them is the usual tendency to blame others without facing the problem squarely.

It is commendable that Dr Matiang’i seems to be taking measures to get to the root of the matter. I hope that his measures will yield some new insights in the problem. My unsolicited advice is that the recently appointed probe committee, and indeed all the stakeholders in the education sector in Kenya, should reject the simplistic explanations similar to the ones I summarise above, and try to understand how the changing nature of society has impacted on, and is reflected in schools today.

The freedoms of expression and the right to human dignity should not only be a preserve of adults out of schools, but equally enjoyed by learners from an early age. Hence, instead of waiting to form ad hoc committees of investigation after such events have happened, we should focus on getting structured information before things get out of hand.

One way of doing this is to ensure that there are independent arbiters between students and their school administrators. The traditional ways where teachers view and conduct themselves as the ultimate authority as far as students’ concerns go have now been overtaken by time, and so we need to put in place mechanisms where students know that they can seek recourse beyond the school administrative structures.

Such mediating authorities must be predictable and trustworthy, impartial and committed to addressing concerns before they get out of hand. And this is not something that Dr Matiang’i can achieve single-handedly. Nor should he be involved in the day-to-day operations of such organs.

How about students forming zonal or district students unions, patronised by some education and administration figures, to collect views and grievances from schools on regular basis, possibly on weekends when students can pour out their hearts? Such structures, if applied, will give students the confidence that at some point, they will get audience with people they can trust.

DIALOGUE

The knee-jerk responses that we have witnessed so far can hardly yield long-term solutions. They only target the students, but not the underlying motive for this unbecoming behaviour. Taking them to court is also counterproductive for two reasons. One, the students suddenly acquire some vain heroism in the eyes of their colleagues, meaning the lessons learnt are short-lived. Second, such measures force parents into situations where they have to defend their children by hiring lawyers for them.

Bizarre as it seems, the fires in schools are actually a call to dialogue that ought to be answered without criminalising or otherwise stigmatising the students who are alleged ring leaders in the fires.

As we dialogue about the new curriculum and education system that will answer to the needs of this country going forward, we also need a national dialogue on how to make the school environment more learner friendly, more accommodating of divergent opinions, and more empowering to the young ones as they acquire knowledge, skills and attitudes that will prepare them for responsible positions in society.

 

Prof Evans Kerosi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Administration, Planning and Institutional Advancement at Mount Kenya University

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