Not anyone can walk into the spotless compound of a leading public high school. The residents, who are always boarders, have to have topped the national primary school exam. Even parents of these privileged students can only come in during very specific times in the calendar. When you visit, you may not sight a single student although up to one thousand of them may be on the campus. If its mealtime, you will see troops of resident teenagers dressed in total uniformity. If the uniform is shoes with laces, no one will have shoes with buckles. Girls wear no jewellery whatsoever– not even stud earrings. These students walk at a fast pace to and from dorms, dining halls and class. There is no lingering, no strolling.
Some meals like breakfast may only be for fifteen minutes and as early as 5.30 am. Dorms are often mono colour sometimes with colours based on ‘houses’. Yellow bed sheets, yellow bed covers, yellow buckets and yellow drinking cups for the Yellow house. Beds are made with ‘hospital corners’ as they do in the military. All items are stored in lockers. The only visible items besides the beds are laundry buckets under beds and a single waste paper bin by the entrance.
Rules that both parents and students sign before admission are not to be trifled with. The rules are applied in a manner that could be traumatic for new comers from private schools. A parent who visits without a school invitation is turned away at the gate like a loitering stranger. If the school only allows 8 oranges and a student comes in with 10 or with forbidden apples, ALL the snacks including any margarine, milk etc. are confiscated. This confiscated food is given to students from poor families who may not have brought any.
Ensuring equity is a major agenda at leading public high schools. No ‘home’ clothes are allowed that could distinguish students along income lines. Parents are not allowed to visit with food items. There is nothing of the family SUV with a hot buffet of delicacies and chilled drinks found during visiting days of many private boarding schools. Top public high schools also insist that even children from poor homes have bought everything on the shopping list and to school specification. This ensures students can function and also removes the notion of the haves and the have-nots. County schools may decline students who have not fully paid school fees or met shopping list requirements. National schools are not allowed to do so. If a child walks in with no fees, no uniform or no yellow bed sheets, the school must rapidly find a solution. National schools have direct relationships with major scholarship providers such Equity Bank’s ‘Wings To Fly’, KCB Foundation etc. If that fails, an article in the newspaper immediately brings in sponsors.
The result of this highly uniform and disciplined existence is a list found at the reception of the administration block. It’s the previous year’s KCSE results with mainly As and Bs. A straight ticket to a public university.
There are disturbing elements in these schools. First, because the demand is so high they are often excessively populated. Some have double the numbers they should have. There must be psychological stress on students who must eat, shower and launder clothes in limited dining and dorm facilities. Classes are tightly packed – right to the teacher’s table. A student who slips academically or socially cannot receive significant individual attention. Also, Sheng is the lingua franca among students and teachers are barely hanging on to pure English or Kiswahili. Sheng is no longer the language of the street. It is part of the education system. Students with good English, from primary school, may stay fluent but language is certainly compromised. Then there is the indelible and highly visible marking of uniforms and other items. New students who have to boldly mark everything must feel like they have been admitted into a scary den of thieves. Integrity is obviously lagging behind discipline.
So there you have it. Kenya’s educated classes, like military cadets, will be early birds, highly disciplined and have major stamina. However few will be artists, as these regimented institutions cannot facilitate this. Many will struggle to communicate fluently in any official language. Unfortunately, they may also steal from you unless you have erected ‘very high fences’.