A burning question in schools
Explanations for the hundreds of arson attacks by pupils in Kenya miss the mark
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.