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Fighting fire with fire is unlikely to stem Kenya student unrest

A parent surveys the scene of Kenya’s worst school fire, in which 63 students died in 2001. Recent arson attacks have been aimed at disruption. Reuters

Ongoing student unrest in Kenya has seen at least 100 schools set alight. Many have been closed, with 6,000 students thought to have been sent home early in the process. The shocking acts of destruction of school and student property have led the country to seek answers for the causes of this delinquent behaviour.

Significantly, there have been no reported deaths from this recent wave of arson. Recent school fires have been widespread and aimed at disruption. But in the past arson attacks of this kind have been deadly. Kenya’s worst school fire dates back to 2001, when suspected arson on a boys’ dormitory packed with sleeping students killed 63.

In response to the alarming wave of arson, the Ministry of Education has announced a number of counter-measures. Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i has also set up an inquiry team that is required to investigate the causes and outline solutions within 30 days.

It remains to be seen how effective these measures will be in discouraging students from engaging in delinquent behaviour. What is clear is that they do not seem to focus on the root causes of the problem at hand. Students at this age are experiencing turbulence associated with adolescence. This must be at the centre of any proposed solutions.

The causes

Some of the causes of the unrest are already well known. One of the reported triggers is corporal punishment in schools. Although illegal, in some reported instances students continue to be subjected to caning for not abiding by punitive school regulations. These rules are meant to increase the learning time in schools but are viewed by the students as oppressive.

Other rules that students find punitive include:

  • reduction of school breaks to increase learning time;

  • cutting back on student entertainment; and

  • schools’ handling of disciplinary issues.

While these reasons could form the basis of student anger, students’ reaction has been alarming. Their actions not only speak to the students’ lack of values but also to lack of negotiation skills to express their grievances. There have been reports in the media of students:

  • sneaking in petrol to start the fires;

  • disconnecting electricity to inhibit communication and movement;

  • draining school water supply to impede firefighting; and

  • physically preventing individuals from putting out the fires.


Some of the government’s counter-measures include stricter controls on student transfers between schools. This is an apparent move to stop students who are instigating violence doing so at other schools.

A proposal has also been made for school management to have regular meetings to listen to student grievances. And the government will work with religious leaders to establish a chaplaincy scheme to address indiscipline in schools. Finally, parents will be asked to shoulder the cost of damaged school property and ensure culpable students are prosecuted.

But empowering adolescents with life skills would be a more effective approach. This is because dealing with adolescents is no easy task. This is a period of dynamic changes characterised by physical and emotional changes. The behaviour risk factors include peer influence, risky sexual behaviour, drug abuse, over-excitement and erratic decision-making.

This phase predisposes adolescents to deviant behaviour such as we are witnessing in Kenyan schools. This is why life skills could help, as they reinforce and promote positive behaviour and attitudes that enable adolescents to overcome challenges associated with growing up. These include self-awareness, self-esteem, puberty, drug and substance abuse, effective communication and values.

Of all these, the most important is that life skills inculcate the values of tolerance in individuals for the betterment of society.

Some of the answers to the dilemma within the education system can be found in the multipronged approach taken by the African Population and Health Research Center to support vulnerable adolescent girls in two urban informal settlements of Nairobi.

The aim of the intervention was to improve learning outcomes and transition to secondary school. The project ran for three years – from 2013 to 2015 – and entailed mentoring enrolled students in life skills, after-school homework support in numeracy and literacy, and parental counselling on education support.

In just three years significant results were seen in:

  • reduction in aggressive, rebellious, and reckless behaviours. This was attributed to mentoring in life skills and parental counselling;

  • pupils were found to better resist peer pressure. They also reported gaining negotiation skills which helped avoid negative influences; and

  • improved social-emotional skills such as self-confidence and self-esteem. Improved interest in schooling was also credited to the project.

This shows that mentoring in life skills is key to tackling the erosion of values among adolescents. It is also an important factor for improving other education and social-emotional outcomes.

Curriculum reform

The results are also a timely reminder against the backdrop of the ongoing education curriculum reform discourse. These reforms seek to adopt a more holistic learner development and learning approach.

For years, the current curriculum has been criticised as being too assessment focused. Pupils’ success in school and even after school has almost entirely been determined by how well they perform in examinations. The reforms should therefore give proper weight to inculcating positive values, social skill and talent nurturing, in addition to the conventional learning process.

The Ministry of Education should seriously consider delivery of life skills as a mainstream subject. If not, it could consider a partnership with parents and the community. Instilling positive behaviour and attitudes would be a remedy to the current erosion of values. It would also provide a platform to secure the future of the children and, by extension, the community.

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