Education minister Mutula Kilonzo is sure to provoke a storm. Beyond the short-skirts-for-schoolgirls brouhaha, Mr Kilonzo has now raised an important policy issue that must be addressed for the sake of our children.
The minister’s directive banning holiday classes has been opposed by the Kenya National Union of Teachers and generally defied or ignored by both public and private schools.
The show of defiance illustrates just how officialdom has become impotent in the brave new dispensation, yet he raised an issue that must be taken up at official government policy level rather than be seen as just the roadside policy declarations of an individual minister.
Many, many years ago, when schoolchildren were being overworked with the new 8-4-4 system, then Vice-President Mwai Kibaki broke ranks with the official line and openly declared support for a more relaxed curriculum.
I still recall the memorable words he issued to the effect that children must be allowed to be children.
That remains true today as it was all those years ago. Children must have time for play, leisure, and relaxation.
That is a fact widely acknowledged, but even in the Kibaki era, we have seen only half-hearted efforts to reform the education system.
It is still focused inordinately on information overload and the mad and ruinous competition to pass examinations and place your school atop the primary or secondary league tables.
I must declare that I have a personal interest in this matter because I have a Standard Eight child who is today constrained to break her holidays and go back to class.
I have attended meetings at the school where the issue of children being overburdened has come up, and usually left with the impression that both parents and teachers have forgotten the needs of the little ones.
In many places, school administrators are obsessed with securing good results for the prestige of the institutions.
The parents, in turn, want to realise their own dreams , and satisfy their own egos in examination success for their young ones.
The end result is maddening workload that beats slavery. Little children are being forced to start classes at 6.30 in the morning and study continuously up to 6pm, with only an hour’s break for lunch. They will go to school also on Saturdays.
And even after leaving class so late every day, and making an allowance for an hour or more to reach home, they will still have mountains of homework to get through.
Pre-teen children are being forced to stay up to 10 or 11pm every night, buried in schoolbooks.
That is criminal. As a journalist I work long and unconventional hours, which often are way above those recommended by the Ministry of Labour and our own human resource — formerly “personnel” — managers.
But I am an adult, and it cannot be right that little children are being condemned to put in such crazy hours.
Not too long ago, during a visit to our alma mater, Lenana School, many of us were shocked to learn that many of the intensive sporting and other extra-curricular clubs and activities had been abandoned.
The explanation from staff was lack of time because of the need for evening and Saturday classes.
The irony was that when Lenana placed such a high premium on compulsory sports and other activities outside the classroom, it ranked high in examination rankings, often in the top five nationally.
Now all the time is spent in the classroom, and the academic performance has plummeted to push the once prestigious school way outside the premier league.
The excuse offered by teachers, and parents, for the workload is the need to complete the syllabus. What seems beyond their comprehension is that academic excellence is achieved through quality. Not quantity.
You can only hammer so much information into a tired brain. If completing the syllabus is too taxing, then Mr Kilonzo must move with speed to have it reviewed.
We all want our young ones to get quality education, but we do not want to create mindless automatons drilled just to pass examinations. Neither must we condemn them to premature stress, burnout, and worse.