A burn­ing ques­tion in schools

Ex­pla­na­tions for the hun­dreds of ar­son at­tacks by pupils in Kenya miss the mark

African Independent - - EDUCATION - EL­IZ­A­BETH COOPER

OVER the past few years, pupils have set fire to hun­dreds of se­nior schools across Kenya. There have been more than 120 cases this year alone. Why pupils are set­ting fire to their schools has been the topic of re­peated investigations by police, ed­u­ca­tion and govern­ment of­fi­cials and jour­nal­ists. In­deed, blame for this trend has been laid in every con­ceiv­able di­rec­tion. The govern­ment has sug­gested the fires are mas­ter­minded by “car­tels” in re­tal­i­a­tion for the govern­ment’s crack­down on lu­cra­tive exam-cheat­ing schemes. They have also said eth­nic hos­til­i­ties mo­ti­vate at­tacks on schools headed by prin­ci­pals who are iden­ti­fied with dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties. The govern­ment’s ex­pla­na­tions treat pupils as un­wit­ting pawns in po­lit­i­cal dis­putes that are not about them or their school­ing. Many an­a­lysts and mem­bers of the pub­lic have blamed pupils’ lack of dis­ci­pline, at­trib­uted to lack­adaisi­cal par­ent­ing as well as the ban on cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment. Again, pupils are un­der­stood to be rel­a­tively pas­sive re­cep­ta­cles for adults’ man­age­ment. My re­search with pupils and in schools across Kenya in­di­cates most of these ex­pla­na­tions miss the mark be­cause they de­pre­ci­ate pupils’ ca­pac­ity for pur­pose­ful po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. In the me­dia, pupils’ ac­tions are cast as “mind­less hooli­gan­ism”. But pupils can ra­tio­nally ex­plain why they use ar­son. They have learned it is an ef­fec­tive tac­tic for win­ning recog­ni­tion of their dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Their use of ar­son rep­re­sents an as­tute read­ing of the lim­ited op­tions avail­able to cit­i­zens for di­a­logue and peace­ful dis­sent re­lated to pub­lic ser­vices, such as ed­u­ca­tion. Lim­ited op­tions for mean­ing­ful cit­i­zen en­gage­ment has given rise to a “strike cul­ture”. In fact, pupils eas­ily iden­tify other ex­am­ples from Kenyan po­lit­i­cal strug­gles that demon­strate how vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion have proven ef­fec­tive means for cit­i­zens to win pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal recog­ni­tion of their griev­ances. What I see is in Kenyan so­ci­ety, the big­ger the im­pact, the quicker the re­ac­tion. The govern­ment sees these peo­ple are se­ri­ous and thinks “if we don’t meet their griev­ances now, we might see worse”. Pupils tar­get their schools be­cause their griev­ances tend to be school-based. The most com­monly cited com­plaints in­clude prin­ci­pals’ overly author­i­tar­ian and un­ac­count­able styles of man­age­ment; poor qual­ity school food and in­ad­e­quate learn­ing re­sources, in­clud­ing teach­ing. Many of these crit­i­cisms re­flect sus­pi­cions about how school bud­gets are be­ing al­lo­cated. The ma­jor­ity of school ar­son cases have oc­curred in board­ing schools across the coun­try. Nearly 80 per­cent of Kenya’s sec­ondary schools are board­ing schools. Pupils ex­plain they are tar­geted be­cause life for them in these schools can be “like prison” – ex­ces­sively rigid and author­i­tar­ian. The ma­jor­ity of school fires are set in pupils’ dor­mi­to­ries. The ra­tio­nale given by pupils is that the de­struc­tion of their dorms means they will be sent home and given some respite from their in­ten­sive board­ing school life­styles. In­ter­views with pupils, as well as re­views of court cases, show it can be dif­fi­cult for pupils to imag­ine the long-last­ing detri­men­tal con­se­quences of the fires. In part, this is due to pupils be­ing cyn­i­cal about the ef­fi­ciency of the Kenyan en­force­ment and judicial sys­tems. Ad­di­tion­ally, some pupils later claimed they had been un­able to an­tic­i­pate the scale of the dam­age the fires would cause to their schools and their own fu­tures. Stud­ies have shown ado­les­cents are more prone to take risks, are more im­pul­sive, and less likely to con­sider the con­se­quences of their ac­tions than adults. All of this in­di­cates the govern­ment’s in­ten­tion to re­spond with more dis­ci­pline and pun­ish­ment of pupils is mis­guided. They have learned ar­son works as a tac­tic to ex­press dis­sat­is­fac­tion. The govern­ment needs to open peace­ful, ef­fec­tive chan­nels for young peo­ple’s per­spec­tives to be taken into ac­count, in ed­u­ca­tion and govern­ment. Oth­er­wise, we can ex­pect more fires next year. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

• El­iz­a­beth Cooper is as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional stud­ies, Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity, Canada


UN­HAPPY: A school­boy in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenyan pupils have learned that set­ting fire to their schools is an ef­fec­tive way to get ac­knowl­edge­ment of their griev­ances, lead­ing to hun­dreds of ar­son at­tacks across the coun­try.

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