Ownership and management of schools is a vexed subject of discussion in education circles.
This is because of the pivotal role schools play as agents of socialisation in the broadest sense.
Not only are they vehicles for imparting knowledge, skills and attitudes, but they are also a means of developing the personality of individuals.
It is about impacting on mind, body and soul; determining the competencies, capabilities and moralities of a nation.
This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Education ministry to revert ownership of schools originally started by churches to those institutions; and this has opened a new round of debate in regard to the management of schools.
It opens an old wound and is bound to spark fierce debate as it raises questions about policy, law and resources. Inherently, it evokes strong religious and sentimental feelings.
Since Independence, the provision of education has been the responsibility of the government, which it does through taxes collected from the citizens. The Constitution, through its robust Bill of Rights, enjoins the government to provide education to all citizens and for good measure, declares that a fundamental human right.
However, in execution of that mandate, the government draws support from various actors, key among them religious organisations, foundations, trust and the private sector. The roles of those actors and institutions are properly etched in law.
Specifically, the role of churches in education has been widely elaborated.
The history of education in Kenya is largely associated with the Western missionaries, who first established churches to win the souls of Africans, and then set up schools and hospitals to take care of the mental and physiological well-being of the converts and their kindred. Early education programmes offered to Africans was geared towards first, enabling them to read the Bible and in that way hasten conversion to Christianity and second, to create a cadre of local evangelicals to spread the Gospel.
Throughout, the evolution of education in Kenya from the early years of the 20th century to Independence was marked by contestations regarding quality, content, resourcing and outcomes. An outstanding point of disquiet was the quality of education, since Africans were offered inferior content and forced to undertake technical courses for the reason that they did not have the mental faculties to internalise abstract concepts and higher knowledge disseminated in formal schools.
For most of that period, education was offered along racial lines — Whites, Coloureds (Indians and Arabs) and African; the latter managed by Native Councils was outright low end.
This is why upon attainment of independence and in line with the pledges made by Kanu in its campaign manifesto, the first education commission was set up in 1964 under Prof Simeon Ominde, which went ahead to do a number of things.
One, recommended a new educational system — 7-4-2-3 and second, change of management of schools. Arising out of the recommendations, Parliament enacted the Education Act in 1968 that formally transferred ownership of all public schools to the government. Subsequent legislation has anchored that.
Increasingly, however, the role of churches, always referred to as sponsors, has been diminished and to date, restricted to nominating three representatives to school management boards and offering spiritual or pastoral programmes.
Equally and even substantively, the faiths have raised concerns about discipline and morality in schools.
The dominant view is that the faiths have been key through pastoral programmes and care to instil discipline in schools and create a conducive learning environment.
That reduced role of faiths in school affairs has caused a vacuum and given way to disorder manifested in increased cases of riots and unrest. Inasmuch as that argument holds, it must also be observed that discipline is not squarely a consequence of religious inclination; it is an inbuilt and self-conceived ethos.
Cumulatively, it is the loss of those responsibilities and influences that have upset the faiths and consequently, for a couple years, forced them to fight to reclaim old mandate.
Opinion is divided, but the fundamentals are as follows.
One, reverting to the old status would necessitate policy change. And that must be debated.
The current Basic Education Act (2013), while bestowing the responsibility of managing schools to the ministry, allows the minister to publish regulations to delegate the responsibility of managing certain aspects of basic education to recognised institutions or entities.
Article 53 (1 and 2) of the Act reads as follows: “Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Cabinet Secretary shall by regulation entrust the governance or management of any aspect of basic education and training to any agency, body, organ or institution as may be appropriate for the purposes of this Act."
However, to do that, the minister must publish regulations, which in themselves have to be subjected to public debate before approval by Parliament. This is where discussions are likely to get hot because whereas it is true the faiths have done a commendably good job in running or supporting schools — most top performing institutions are church-based — the dynamics have changed.
There is no clarity about the extent and depth to which faiths would be involved in school management. And importantly, how to insulate school management from intrusive and meddling sponsors, a practice witnessed variously in the past and in particular, regarding choice of headteachers or even in finances. All that must be clarified in the regulations. For records, the last Education Regulations were published in 2015 that spelt out rules for school management as well as implementation of free primary education.
An equally critical subject of discussion is the capacity.
Mainstream churches such as the Catholic, Anglican, SDA, Baptist, among others, have strong traditions and networks for social and economic development and in particular managing schools and hospitals.
They run successful schools, hospitals and universities besides engaging in social work and economic empowerment.
To be sure, the pioneering private universities and indeed the best ones, are run by faiths; a living testimony to their capacities.
But the same narrative may not apply to sectarian and small churches, some of which also sponsor schools, but which are insufficiently enabled to run academic institutions and most crucially, bereft of resources and may develop the penchant for feeding off those very institutions.
Essentially, there must be a determination of the capabilities so that as decisions are made on school management, only those faiths with capacity are allowed to do so.
Kenya has come a long way in nationalising management of education; a journey started right at independence with the establishment of the Ominde commission that gave rise to the 1968 Education Act and endorsed through subsequent legislation.
In the intervening years, many developments have come to pass and legal and policy discourse as well as political and economic dynamics have varied.
Thus, reverting ownership of schools to churches, therefore, requires sober and candid discussion; not presidential directive.
Mr Aduda, a manager at NMG, is an education specialist.