What aspects of your secondary school life did you love most? A majority of you, I’m sure will give answers that can be counted on one hand if not one finger. Whenever you hear someone relieve their experiences in the first 4 of the 8-4-4 system, it is usually to talk about the harsh discipline measures, poor nutrition, horrible sleeping conditions and generally a prison-like school environment.
A close friend of mine often recounts to me, with seething anger, how dictatorial (or rather ridiculously stupid) their high school headmistress was. In the space of time that my friend was in that school the headmistress banned almost everything that she perceived to be even a little bit enjoyable to the students. From basking in the sun for more than a second to forcing them to get water from a well instead of getting it directly from the taps (Seriously?).
In recent days this has got me thinking; might the kenyan secondary school setting be the point at which we are losing our potential-filled youths to unemployment, terrorism and other transgressions?
A Crucial Phase of Life
A majority of primary school leavers join secondary school at the ages of 13-15 and leave at the age of 16-19. So almost all of the students in our secondary academic institutions are between the ages of 13 and 19. In other words; they are adolescents. Look at the following proven scientific facts about adolescents.
- They undergo drastic emotional and cognitive development.
- They have a better understanding of risks and rewards of their actions.
- More emotionally vulnerable to things like rejection, degradation of their capabilities or emotional abuse.
- They are a lot more self conscious (metacognition).
- They are more liable to questioning authority but on the other hand reasonable enough to get into a discussion on rules and responsibilities.
- Social pressure increases drastically. They are more likely to take risky actions simply to fit into a social group.
- More than ever, they need the direction of parents and other older persons close to them for guidance and support.
- Proper nutrition is extremely important in proper mental and physical development.
The Reality in Most High Schools
- Extremely poor nutrition
I’ll start with the most obvious one. When you have students being fed a diet consisting of at most 4 different types meals only throughout the year, there is a huge problem. You will find that most schools cook the same meal for lunch, Monday to Friday and another meal for dinner Monday to Friday (usually githeri and ugali+”boiled” vegetables). The weekend may be a little different (rice maybe) but no better.
Some schools are trying to provide fruits but one small banana or mango is hardly enough. Teenagers need a diet with more calories, iron, calcium and proteins.
Consequences: a diet lacking in essential micronutrients can hamper brain development affecting the performance of students and even increasing risk of certain neuro diseases such as alzheimer’s. It can also affect concentration and focus eventually bringing academic performance down.
- Harsh punishments with no consideration for dialogue
Teenagers can reason with administrators when they make mistakes and harsh punishments simply drive on rebellion and bad habits. Male teachers in the school I was in actually used whips to beat students like dogs. In my friend’s school they were forced to stand in the field for hours as punishment.
If only we tried treating the students like maturing adults; reason with them and make them see their mistakes and the consequences. if these fail, there are far better and more productive punishments than caning or slashing grass for a whole day.
Consequences: These kinds of punishment make things worse and make the possibility of good behavior now and in the future all the more remote. This is exactly why today you hear of youths engaging in all sorts of crimes including banditry, theft, murder and even terrorism. School taught them they were bad people with no hope of rehabilitation and they believed it. This is especially so if the parents are not around or do not counter these negative mentalities.
- Lack of adequate sleep
I don’t have to explain the terrible short term and long term consequences of inadequate sleep. You can find them here and here and also here. In most secondary schools, students’ bedtime starts at around 10pm and they are woken up at 5am, some earlier. 10pm to 5am is only 7hrs.
While this may be enough for an adult, teenagers need 9.5 hours of good solid sleep. When you consider the fact that most are still awake at midnight you can see how bad the situation is. The school should teach them about the benefits of getting adequate sleep, create policies to ensure they sleep at the right time (9pm) and then adjust the wake up bell to 6am.
Students will perform better, be more focused and even be better behaved.
Consequences: deteriorating mental health, a feeling of being drunk, aggressiveness, poor physical health and so much more (see the links above).
- Lack of mentorship
Students in boarding schools get to see their parents for a few weeks only out of a whole year. Parents are supposed to be the primary model for their kids and yet this opportunity is taken away at a crucial time for growth. The student is put in a school where the teachers care only about books and fellow students are poor models.
The solution to this is either abolishing boarding schools or integrating mentorship into the secondary curriculum.
Consequences: Bad behaviors such as drug use, bullying and lack of a future vision.
- Lack of information
It still baffles me why most secondary schools do not provide internet access to their students. Internet is an extremely helpful tool in moving ahead in this modern world. It provides access to the world and the knowledge it holds.
Even worse than lack of internet, basic information on sexuality, peer pressure, drug use, career choices, politics and other important topics is scanty or completely absent.
Consequences: students complete secondary school not wiser than they went in. Having an understanding of trigonometry will not prevent addiction or unplanned pregnancy.
- Lack of talent nurturing
Music, arts and other “non-academic” fields are largely ignored in secondary. Only a few schools make them an active part of the curriculum. So a teenager who could have gone on to become a world famous pianist or artist gets his or her talent wasted. How else could you explain the lack of good music, art, cuisine etc in Kenya These things are there of course but limited only to those who went to elite schools or had good parents who encouraged the talent.
Consequences: A country where most music is terrible, art is basic and monotonous and a very boring and barely growing cuisine (ugali, githeri, boiled rice etc).
- Average education standards
Did you know that in most western countries, high school students write and submit academic papers? In Kenya academic writing is a foreign term in secondary schools. They are not engaged couraged to broaden their minds and engage in research. Teachers teach only what is in the curriculum and most of it is not applicable in their future life.
- Lack of reasonable freedom
High schools in kenya are basically prisons. Freedoms are highly curtailed and you are all treated like a bunch of children who need to be supervised all the time. Teenagers are just starting to get into adulthood and secondary does nothing to prepare them for it.
Consequences: Many teenagers experience high school life in college. All the things they should have done in secondary school – forming stupid girl clicks, learning their sexuality (not having sex, mind you) etc – start in campus. So instead of getting serious with their studies many take their new found freedom to the extreme. This is also why high school-like study habits persist in college.
That guy could have been a surgeon or a jazz musician, that girl could have been the first female president of Kenya or a world renowned medical researcher; instead they passed through secondary school and there they left all their potential to become great men and women.