First published Sunday Standard, February 4, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group
A few years back, I persuaded one of my teenage children to accompany me to a television panel discussion on teenage substance abuse. As we were driving to the studio, he confided for the first time that he had experimented. Wide-eyed and trying not to crash, I asked him why he was sharing this now. He replied that if he was asked, he would tell the truth and wanted me to know before he told the country. I relaxed, he had just passed the bigger integrity test.
Substance abuse and under-age drinking is more prevalent across all our public and private schools than we like to admit publicly. So is corruption, cheating, bullying, beating, intimidation, sexual harassment, strikes, radicalisation and violence. In 2016, 1,000 students were arrested in 483 cases of school unrest. Incredibly, students have been caught with answers to leaked examination papers written on their hands, legs, clothes, bits of paper or on smuggled phones. Last year, 40 per cent of Head Teachers have reported pupil-pupil sexual harassment in their schools while 41 teachers were fired for teacher-pupil misconduct last year. Just two weeks back, student violence left 35 Jamhuri Secondary High School students, Head Teacher Fred Awuor badly hurt and four others in court. Sadly, this tragic event is not isolated to this Nairobi school alone.
Our schools are at the center of an epic battle for Article 10 of our constitution. This battle for ethics, rights and national values is not just confined to our public schools. The gap between our public and private schools and wider ethnic, class and geographical divisions in our society play out also.
Discussing with committed educationalists in the wake of the Jamhuri Secondary High School closure, I am convinced of the tremendous opportunity to get this right in the new curriculum. This curriculum reform is the first in 32 years and needs national attention. It enshrines seven values that seek empowered, ethical and engaged spaces for our students. It calls for new ways of managing formal interactions like parents’ days and assemblies as well as informal pupil interactions with role models, community leaders and mentors.
If there are some bad traits we need to break, there are some new habits we can all encourage. Old disciplinary command and control methods have to change now. We have to promote values and responsibility over rules and regulations as well as space for students to discuss and propose solutions to their grievances without victimization. The archaic two week suspension habit needs to be looked at. Why two weeks? What happens in between? The original reason for two weeks was that posted letters took that long. With email and social media platforms, does decision-making need to take that long?
Perhaps the new curricular vision requires schools to reframe their school motto, values, annual vision and missions and perhaps, students could drive this? Can we now retire that age old comment by us parents to our children’s teachers “so tell me, how is my child doing in school?” Raising children takes a parent, teacher and a neighborhood.
Could we accelerate private–public school diversity exchanges to break down stereotypes and discrimination? When will we demonstrate zero tolerance for sexist, ethnic and class jokes in our homes, schools and the media? Given the levels of corruption in our schools, is it time students got to look at the financial management accounts of their schools or spoke at annual general meetings?
KPLC has now connected 24,000 of our schools to electricity. Hopefully they are receiving more accurate bills then some of our homes (thanks Wakili Mboya). We need to protect this investment with national public, civic and business campaigns for our students to learn both rights and responsibility.
If we, our new Education Cabinet Secretary and the Ministry miss this moment, the future is predictable. The students cheating today will give us a national migraine tomorrow. Our mathematic geniuses will be skimming our credit cards and money laundering. Our English students will be grossly inflating procurements for kickbacks. Our agriculture students will be land-grabbing and importing genetically unsafe seeds and our science and technology students will be digging masterful tunnels into our banks to steal from us.
The English word integrity has a Latin root. It means whole or complete. We are only complete when our actions stem from our values. Let’s use this moment to #ChoosePowerfully and add value to our schools.