Behind the veil of private schools

This week’s piece traverses the murky depths of the Kenyan education system and the stories of schools that have misplaced and misconstrued motives which do not favor the student as much as they do to the administration. I will be using subjective points of view from articles I have read, personal musings and informal talks to shed light to societal vices that have broiled for long behind the iron gates of our schools.

Strength in numbers?

My first case study involves the upsurge in private primary and secondary schools in Kenya. The popularity of private learning institutions can be seen evidently from the numbers. According to official figures from the Ministry of Education, the number of private primary schools has more than doubled over the past six years from about 7,000 in 2014 to 16,000 in 2019. The same can be observed in private secondary schools – a four-fold increase from 1,000.

Now, I looked at these numbers and compared them to those of public schools and it’s clear that private learning institutions are the minority in Kenya. And there’s a reason why. The private learning institutions are feted for their state-of-the-art infrastructure, integration of IT in learning, permeation of foreign curricula and boasting of a smorgasbord of learners from the wealthy upper-class. This is often seen as a mark of the high quality of education offered in these institutions.

My rant will only focus on the private learning institutions that I have attended as well as those I have received information from former teachers and parents. It would be unfair to blanket all the private learning institutions in the country since I have no prior knowledge of how individual schools are run and the implications of each.

Totalitarian rule and the famed ‘kichinjio’

Yes, it is true. The quality of education is higher in private learning institutions. Trust me when I say this because I attended a private primary school, occasionally termed as ‘academies’, which belongs to a club of schools all around the country. When I say quality, I mean to imply things like the routine, the rules and regulations, the learning modes and the policies. The fact remains that while private learning institutions have a well organized structure that ensures learning is vitalized in all aspects, the neglect and abuse of power is rife and continues to manifest itself loudly in these institutions.

My initial bone of contention arises from the execution of policy in the private learning institutions which, I believe, is not beyond reprieve. The famous ‘spoon-feeding’ agenda has its roots from private schools. This is when learners are provided with every nugget of information they require while withholding the chance for active learner participation, self-inquiry and practical experimentation. The role of the teachers is therefore to channel everything they believe the learners need to pass their tests and exams. The concern consequently shifts from the desire to pass knowledge and ensure understanding to wanting the learners to simply pass their tests and record high marks.

This subsequently breeds the ‘mean-score mania’ and the ravenous approach to push learners to raise the mean-score of the individual subjects and classes. I vividly recount how my teachers would insist on performance in examinations and tests only to pip the rest of the classes in the mean-score, barely did they pay attention to those of us who needed personalized help in particular lessons.

When the results did not turn out as expected, the teachers would morph into beasts of torture. It is safe to say I endured my hardest and most painful beatings while in my private primary school. A close friend of mine tells me of a specific room where learners who did not post a favorable performance would be met by the most ruthless teachers to receive a caning of the century. It was mercilessly termed as a ‘mean-score correction center’ or ‘kichinjio’ (slaughterhouse/abattoir).

A teacher administering corporal punishment

It might seem like all this accounts for the high performance of private schools as compared to public schools in national examinations. And while it is commendable that the government of Kenya has continued to admit more learners from public schools than private schools to famed national high schools in the country, the kind of aggressive and totalitarian learning that happens in private schools cannot be understated.

The effect that this has on the learners is detrimental to their physical well-being as well as emotional. I am sadly reminded of a distant friend of mine who succumbed to a load of anxiety and mental stress while schooling at one of the best private schools in Nakuru County, Kenya. She unfortunately passed away and remains a testament of the grueling corporal punishment and the thankless perpetrators of it. It is heartbreaking that the strife still continues almost two decades after outlawing of corporal punishment.

Scavenging teachers

The government of Kenya outlawed the practice of tuition-based learning in schools, a move that hugely affected the profiteering teachers from private schools and closed the gap in marked performance of private and public schools. I’m saying this because given the average tuition prices that teachers would charge, it would be considered a reachable price for learners in private schools. Learners in public schools would not afford tuition let alone the school fees. Outlawing tuition leveled the playing field for these learners and quashed any competitive advantage.

Tuition in my private school was sort of a means to address the academic concerns that would not be aired out in the regular class. It was funny how these tuition lessons were eye-opening and more revealing than the normal classes I would attend. It was as if the teachers were preserving this helpful information to dish it out behind closed doors at a fee!

On this note, allow me to call out the teachers who take advantage of learners’ performance to endear themselves to parents and earn their next lunch from them. Teachers of this kind will pick out the low-performing learners and convince their parents that they require ‘special attention’. I have a testimony of a teacher who even promised the learner’s parent that he would deliver him an A! Parents will inexplicably always believe the teacher (and why not, the teacher owes the parent a responsibility over their child). Sadly, as the parent churns out bills for the learner’s tuition, the teacher hardly puts any effort into assisting the struggling learner. The aforementioned teacher failed terribly to deliver the A grade all while explaining to the parent of his tried-and-tested methods which surprisingly could not work on the learner. I almost burst out laughing!

Divide and conquer

Let’s talk about the segregation of learners based on performance. I have heard of different versions of this and even experienced it at least twice. This happens when, for some reason, learners in a school are categorized based on their performance and bunched into classrooms ranging from the best performers to the poor performers. I personally loathed this kind of segregation not only because it exposed a learner to a different learning ecosystem that he/she may not be used to but also lowered the esteem of the bunch of poor performers. These learners felt as though their future would be bleak and their luck had run out. This segregation policy points to how much priority is given to performance and grades in private schools and less priority on cohesion and individual tracking.

On a similar note, I still have never understood why learners should have to sit for special examinations just to obtain an index number. I believe a learner’s index number should be chosen arbitrarily, much like an admission number into a college or university. That way, learners do not apportion their learning capabilities to a singular index number. What if a learner falls sick and fails to register proper grades for the index examination? Does this mean they are not better performers? I noticed the glaring disparity between an index number and performance during my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams and my opinion formed since then.

Money-making machine

Learners of Central Primary School in Kisumu County, Kenya

Lastly, let me elucidate on the money-making side of for-profit schools using only examples drawn from the informal talks I have held and personal experiences. See, it’s not enough that private schools charge grandly for the school fees and facilities. The heads of these schools will go as far as dictating the kind of books and learning material that the learners ought to use for ‘optimal performance’. There is little to no room for error or compromise in acquiring the learning material. I remember how a former teacher of mine would speak ill of a certain reference book and explain that the writers got their scripts wrong and that sort of ‘propaganda’ would earn us a negative mark even!

As laughable as it sounds, the fact that the heads of these schools would also insist on certain learning material that they only have the purchasing rights to or have marketing deals penned down already showed how more they valued making business than offering valuable content. And sure enough, the publishers and book suppliers are the parties that profit more at the expense of mediocre learning content for learners. Welcome to capitalism 101!

I believe the nation should have a standardized set of books primarily for coursework. But that’s where it should stop. Learners should be able to use revision books that they can afford in order to supplement the coursework content.

Inasmuch as the private academies have their benefits in having manageable student populations, a better teacher-to-learner ratio and top-notch learning facilities, it is imperative that a closer look into issues of ethics, humanity and fiscal responsibility is given. There is a lot of rot hiding behind impressive grades, high mean-scores and clean pavements.

Disclaimer: Any opinions represented in this piece are subjective and in no way reflect the state of all private learning institutions in Kenya. Do you have any interesting private school story you would like to share? Feel free to hit the comments section!

3 thoughts on “Behind the veil of private schools”

  1. What I can say about this is we should have been encouraged to actually learn more and not be so obsessed with grades. We literally used to have a Social Studies teacher who would cane you ten times for every question failed, that’s insane if you ask me. Also, what makes them think that caning helped us learn better? Things should change.

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