Nothing pains a parent more than the sudden news of the loss of a child.
And, from experience, nothing stings a school principal more than the death of a student, whatever the circumstances.
News of the fire that gutted a dormitory at Moi Girls School, Nairobi, claiming the lives of nine girls and leaving a number scarred, was devastating.
It also reignited debate on school fires and student safety.
The taskforce appointed by the government to investigate school unrest, which presented its findings in May, made practical recommendations on how to improve learners’ safety in schools.
Articles 50, 83 and 84 of The Basic Education Regulations, 2015, spell out the measures that school boards of management need to put in place to ensure learners’ safety.
But perhaps we need to go beyond safety and begin to interrogate the place of boarding school education in Kenya.
In many countries, especially in the developed world, boarding school education at primary and secondary levels is the exception rather than the norm.
In fact, many people from these countries get amazed at the number of boarding schools and colleges in Kenya whenever they visit.
Boarding school education, especially at secondary school level, is the norm here.
There are historical reasons for this; scarcity of schools and the need to save girls from harmful cultural practices such as FGM and early marriages during the colonial and early post-independent Kenya made boarding schools an absolute necessity.
Unfortunately, it seems that, with time, we mistakenly came to equate boarding schools with excellence and day institutions with mediocrity.
Almost every public day school in Kenya today is considered as being at some kind of institutional larvae stage that should blossom into a boarding school.
Consequently, students attending day schools are often considered “failures”.
But we can change this narrative. Day schools such as Kianda, Consolata, Makini, Strathmore, St Mary’s, Cardinal Otunga High School and Loreto Convent Valley Road are among those in Nairobi that have demonstrated that students can excel in a day school.
All these are private schools that have invested heavily in excellent learning and co-curricular facilities.
Perhaps the government and local communities should start thinking of starting perpetual day schools that could be nurtured into centres of excellence.
The government could make deliberate efforts to promote existing day schools by upgrading their infrastructure to the level of national schools and investing heavily in transport to ease access to these schools.
This would help decongest public boarding schools and offer alternative quality education.
The explosion of quality private primary schools across the country without a corresponding expansion of private secondary schools has, to some extent, fuelled the crisis in our boarding secondary schools.
Up to about 20 years ago, a majority of students enrolling in government public schools were from public day schools, most of which operated on the bare minimum in terms of facilities.
These were awed by the superior facilities they found in public secondary boarding schools.
The reality today is that a good number of students enrolling in public secondary schools come from primary private ones with superior academic, co-curricular and boarding facilities.
Instead of being wonderstruck, they are thunderstruck by the facilities, which they consider way beneath their standards.
Many of these students remain in these schools against their wish.
Their parents hope that they will eventually grow to like the schools, settle down and eventually pass their exams.
Oftentimes, this does not happen. These disillusioned teenagers become discontent and resentful and resort to acts of indiscipline, including arson.
Establishing day wings in such schools or enrolling such students in good public day schools might be a welcome alternative.
It might also help to review the way we run boarding facilities in our schools.
In the minds of parents, teachers and society in general, the purpose of schools hardly goes beyond academics.
After four years of learning, the success of a student and school is judged on academic performance.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a lot of time, effort and money are dedicated to academics, sometimes at the expense of students’ social welfare.
Perhaps we should consider running boarding facilities as semi-autonomous units headed by trained personnel in housekeeping and institutional management.
The government could also consider hiring custodians and provide them with special rooms next to students’ dormitories.
These personnel would watch over students at night and weekends, and ensure that in case of emergency, someone would be awake to raise the alarm at the earliest opportunity.
This has worked fairly well in public universities. High school students probably need these services more.
It is my hope that in the proposed curriculum will not succumb to the temptation of turning junior secondary level (Grades 7 to 9) into boarding.
Indeed we could take advantage of the overhaul to start day wings in boarding schools.
We should always bear in mind that schools are not natural habitats for children; homes are.
Mr Muthiora is the principal of Strathmore School. [email protected]