Kenya’s Ministry of Education has once again expressed plans to phase out boarding schools. The proposed alternative is to turn all boarding schools into day schools while increasing the number of existing day schools.
Ministry officials advance a number of reasons for the intention.
First, they say, maintaining boarding schools is expensive. Second, parents have abdicated to teachers the responsibility of instilling discipline in their children, thus the acts of arson, endemic use of drugs and alcohol, teenage sex and pregnancies.
It is true that boarding schools are expensive. But the cost of the proposed alternative will be exorbitant. To give every student access to a day school, the ministry will have to build many schools while expanding the capacities of existing day secondary schools.
They would also have to expand the infrastructure of primary schools in order to accommodate secondary school learning. This exercise would consume billions of shillings. If you add kickbacks, other forms of thievery, and inefficiencies due to cronyism in the award of tenders, the cost could well be too high to bear.
The government could argue that the cost will be worth it. After all, a Pakistani prime minister once declared that the country was ready to suffer everything, including starvation, in order to develop atomic bombs to counter India’s nuclear arsenal.
However, the following considerations indicate that the ministry’s proposal might not be worthwhile.
First, will Kenya’s chaotic public transport sector be able to handle thousands more students going to school every morning and every evening? What would be the cost to parents of this daily commute? Also, students who arrive home at night will be too tired to do their homework. In boarding schools, students have time to not only play sports but also to do their homework.
Girls would face all kinds of temptations and dangers on their way home from school. Already, primary school girls are exposed to kidnapping, early pregnancy or marriage. Boys would be tempted by gang culture in the slums.
In summary, in their daily commute to school, teenagers of both genders would run a gauntlet of criminals, drugs, alcohol and other dangers. The idea that students would now not set their dormitories alight is a logical fallacy.
Criminal inclination will not be eliminated by eliminating boarding schools. Nothing stops the criminally inclined to burn shops or markets. There is also the question of unstable or violent home environments. What about students in the villages with no access to electricity? In some homes, children are given chores like fetching water or chopping firewood.
In others, teenagers are obliged to cook or babysit younger siblings.
Finally, boarding schools, because of the military-style regulations and controls, instil character and discipline.
They also engender a camaraderie that lasts a lifetime. Dear ministry officials, think through these issues before you leap.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.