As the ballet teacher pulls over his top-of-the-range sports car, a Cabinet minister’s helicopter touches down on the school sports ground.
There is a dancing extravaganza planned at the school amphitheatre. The minister, in the company of his peers in the high society, arrives early to have lunch with his Year Nine daughter.
The meals at the dining hall are similar to those served in a five-star hotel. His son is away mastering French on a 10-day school trip to Paris.
Welcome to life at any one of the major international schools in Kenya; schools designed to cater for the who’s who in society — top government officials, diplomats, CEOs in blue chip companies and wealthy businessmen.
Among the surnames that feature in these schools are the Kenyattas, the Mois, the Odingas, the Mudavadis, the Kibakis and other high-profile families.
Here, parents pay anything from Sh500,000 to Sh1.5 million every year for boarding, facilities, and specialised instructors to educate a child.
And that does not include the international trips that may be planned or excursions to such places as Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
Most of these schools have mixed nationalities with some having as many as 60 countries represented.
“Not many years ago, international schools in the country catered predominantly for European and other expatriates,” says Mr John O’Connor, Director of Brookhouse International School, adding: “But things have changed. More and more Kenyans are sending their children to international schools in the country.”
Students at the schools are not only prepared to excel academically and explore talents in sports, music and the arts, but also to become global citizens.
From the websites of many of these schools, they respect diverse beliefs and cultures but some are drawn up principally on Christian values.
Brookhouse, along with St Andrew’s Turi, Peponi, Greensteds, Braeburn Group of Schools, Rusinga and the International School of Kenya are leading international schools.
Also in that league are Kenton College, The Banda School, Hillcrest and Pembroke House, Rusinga School, Rift Valley Academy and Rossyln Academy.
Some are based in the city’s leafy suburbs such as Potter House School in Runda Estate while others are set up in sprawling ranches.
Pembroke House, for instance, was established in a ranch in Gilgil in the 1920s. According to their website, the children are served hot chocolate and biscuits after preps in the evening and seniors are allowed some time to listen to music on their iPods, and “talk quietly”.
At Potter House, said director Florence Wanyoike, their emphasis is helpful Christian values such as truthfulness and honesty.
The facilities are world class. At the Brookhouse library, for instance, the latest publications of Nation newspapers are supplied alongside those of The New York Times and the Sunday Times of London.
With a large number of computers in such schools, all connected to the Internet, students have the much needed exposure to the wider world.
There are other exclusive facilities. St Andrews Turi, for instance, boasts of a helipad.
But for the parents to ensure their children do not compete on basis of wealth at Turi, they limit the pocket money to Sh1,000, which is paid alongside the fees. The money in then deposited in the school kiosk, known in international school parlance as “tuck shops” and children allowed to collect items they may need.
The libraries in such schools are not shelves of dusty old books, but audio and visual materials are available that make learning for the students fun and interesting. The classes are fitted with power point equipment to aid teaching.
The students are also able to participate in educational tours around the world.
In these schools, laundry is done by cleaning staff while boarding rooms have entertainment facilities like TV sets and radios. But the students are also taught responsibility through many programmes offered, such as community service.
The academic aspects of education here are quite different with many of the schools offering the broad and challenging British National Curriculum or the North American curriculum for schools such as West Nairobi.
At the age of 16+ the students write the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), followed by either British system A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB) at 18+.
This British curriculum is currently being taught in 120 nations across the globe and the international schools in Kenya have well-established links with universities overseas for careers guidance as tertiary advice is an integral part of the Sixth Form experience.
Graduates of these schools go on to top universities in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and South Africa. Within the British curriculum, a student’s profile of leadership skills, communication skills, sporting activities and artistic achievements are also given priority along with achieving top grades.
The IGCSE was developed by Cambridge University in 1988. The system provides a broad study programme and covers subjects from a variety of areas: languages, humanities, social sciences, sciences and maths, as well as creative, technical and vocational subjects.
Unlike the 8-4-4 education system, students are under less pressure to face one major external examination. The IGCSE is spread over a period of two years, offering the students a broad choice of subject options. During the examination period, students with learning difficulties are given extra time to write their papers too.
It prepares students for further academic work including progression to the Advanced Levels system.
Students also take initiative for their study, by choosing the kind of subjects that they are interested in, which makes it easier for them to focus on their chosen career path.
This is designed to make the IGCSE system suitable for students with varying levels of ability. The students are encouraged to participate in community activities, and in many of the schools there are weekly lessons in sports, games and clubs.
Students are also expected to undertake work attachments in companies before completing their high school education.
The Model United Nations event at the UN headquarters at Gigiri is a critical event on the school calendar for international schools.
For this, a contingent of pupils is selected from each school to act as delegations representing several countries in the world. The whole occasion provides extensive opportunities for public and persuasive speaking.
This complements an already existing appreciation by the students of people of different nationalities, cultures and backgrounds.
Small class sizes, higher teacher-student ratios, better facilities and more personalised and specialised teaching are the secret behind the success of students at such schools with classes having no more than 20 students.
The concept was inherited from British colonialists who preserved this lifestyle for a select few primary schools around the country which were categotrised as Class C schools. Such schools — among them Nairobi Primary School and Hospital Hill Primary School — were exclusively for white children. Class B schools would be reserved for Asians and Class A schools for Africans.
Nairobi Primary School former deputy headmaster, Lawrence Ngacha, who taught for most of the 1970s, recollects with nostalgia what it meant to teach in a class C school.
The teachers were offered fully furnished houses and would be served three course meals prepared by chefs over lunch time. In addition, and more importantly, the classes would have no more than 25 pupils at any given time.
The school boasted swimming and cricket facilities as well as emphasis on creative arts and music lessons. To touch off the class preserved by colonialists for their children, the school had a shooting range near the Carnivore Restaurant. At the time, then Vice-President Daniel Moi’s children attended the school.
“There were many prominent people’s children including the Mois, the Ngeis, the Ntimamas and numerous ministers, permanent secretaries, military chiefs, diplomats and others.
“Kibaki and Kenyatta children attended St Mary’s School, which was also a high class school with a Roman Catholic basis. At the time, private schools were very few. In fact Hillcrest was started by (Kenneth) Matiba and a former headmaster at Nairobi Primary of British origin,” said Mr Ngacha.
The biggest challenges were the parents who liked to intimidate teachers.
“I remember Paul Ngei (then Cabient minister) had a confrontation with a teacher but the teacher and the school stood their ground. I also remember caning Gideon Moi but his father supported us, I think because he had been a teacher himself. We had high levels of discipline,” said Mr Ngacha.
University of Nairobi sociologist Dr Agens Zani says that children who attend such schools can benefit greatly from the learning environment where they have world class facilities and teachers who give specialised attention.
In addition, said Dr Zani, they could benefit from the diversity of the curriculum and the networks and friendships they are able to make, which could land them jobs or business deals in the future.
“The downside is that they may end up having a narrow view of life because they remain in the elite club and may not necessarily interact with a diversity of people. They end up not being exposed to (ordinary) society.
Succeed in society
“The parents have a huge task of filling the cultural gap where they want them to learn the African culture as well. Whether the children succeed in society or malfunction, a lot of that depends on the family environment. Parents need to give attention and affection,” said Dr Zani.
Nairobi-based psychologist Mbutu Kariuki says the learning environment in the elite schools is great for stimulating the intellectual and creative capacities of children.
He, however, cautions that parents need to be careful to mould characters who are able to function in future if they don’t get the same privileges in later life.
“If you get your children into that system, you must help them to develop resilience so that they can bounce back despite what life throws at them in the future. You must tell your gods that there is no turning back because its almost impossible to re-adjust to an ordinary lifestyle,” said Mr Kariuki.