This has been a torrid few weeks for Alliance High School. Reports of systematic bullying at the oldest institution for secondary education for African students in the country rightly shocked the nation. Not all the media accounts were accurate. The student who was injured after assault by prefects was not in Form One but a Fourth Former.
However, there is absolutely no excusing a system that allows teenagers to engage in physical assault of other teens. It is right that heads have rolled and that the episode has led to considerable soul searching. Still, it would be Kenya’s loss if the pounding the school’s image has received led to the decline of one of the nation’s greatest institutions and, worse, caused students from across the country not to aspire to go to Alliance.
A little tale from the past. As a primary school student who was an obsessive reader of the newspapers and an aspiring writer, I remember leafing through the Nation and spotting a sparkling essay by one Martin Mbaya. He had won a national writing competition and his reward was the publication of his contribution in the paper. In the credit line, it said that the writer was the school captain at Alliance High School. In that instant, I decided I was going to work to get into the school. A few years later, as a Form Two student at Alliance, I went into the library and stumbled upon a book, Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, by another product of the institution, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I read it from cover to cover in two sittings and it remains one of the most influential works I have encountered. Among other things, I immediately resolved to drop my rather long baptismal name. There are thousands of students in Kenya and beyond who can share stories about the positive influence the school has had on them, including many of the young men who moulded the country at independence.
They say you should never let a good crisis go to waste. Alliance needs to enact significant reforms to restore the positive culture that seems to have been lost amidst major management missteps over the last five years or so. Because it was the first high school for African students, the institution is a model for many around the country. That means the problems there point to systemic weaknesses in the wider education sector that need urgent addressing.
A number of suggestions have come out of several meetings of old boys in recent days.
One of the most urgent is the question of school management. It was pointed out that any institution with over 2,000 students or employees and a budget running into hundreds of millions would ordinarily be considered a midsized company that should be run by an experienced CEO. This is the case in many national schools, run by individuals with limited management experience. Should the Education Act be reviewed to allow for executive administrators to take over the management of these schools while a headmaster handles the academic side of matters?
The question of accountability is another thorny matter. From primary schools (where head teachers have been accused of padding student numbers to receive millions in extra funds from the free primary education kitty to the larger high schools where principals preside over hundreds of millions), standards of accounting and auditing are lax indeed.
An endowment fund has been established by old boys of Alliance to expand facilities and pay for students who cannot afford school fees. It was pointed out that contributions would be far more generous if donors were assured there would be accountability in the management of those funds. A greater role in the board of management for players with an abiding interest in the fate of these institutions would probably go a long way in boosting confidence and enhancing contributions. Starehe Boys’ Centre is one of the best models for old students making a significant contribution to and having a major say in the running of these schools.
It is a good thing that Education Minister Fred Matiang’i has taken a keen interest in developments at Alliance and is listening to various stakeholders as he seeks to bring his broom of reforms to bear on the wider sector. Any changes should be structural and, in the medium term, should also focus on expanding facilities which have been stretched to breaking point by a surge in enrolments as a consequence of the free basic education programme. Some of these institutions cannot be allowed to go down, nor should any student reading the latest stories be forced to change the trajectory of their dreams.