A dormitory on fire at Kakamega High School.

The latest surge of arson attacks across Kenyan and South African schools is worrying. Boys are disproportionately at the centre of these crises.

As both countries build back from the crippling of education facilities by the Covid-19 pandemic, what new ideas could help create safer schools?

While some were celebrating World Students Day under the theme “Learning for people, planet, prosperity, and peace” on 15th October, the anniversary may have passed many students.

School buildings in 35 schools across 17 counties in Kenya have been deliberately torched in the last month. Tshikombani Primary School in Limpopo, South Africa was not spared either. Perhaps in a perverse act of Pan African solidarity, arsonists also burnt down their principal’s office a week before end of year exams. School fires and student unrest are not new. The late FW de Klerk and the Nationalist Party missed the signs, but it was the 1976 Soweto student uprising that signalled an end to the apartheid regime. Thirty years ago, Kenya also reeled from the killing of 17 girls and raping of 69 by neighbouring male students at St Kizito Secondary School in Meru County. What can be done to arrest this current wave once more?

Arguments are varied. Do constitutions and laws outlawing corporal punishment fuel the violence? Would beating help, policymakers are now asking? Should students found guilty of arson be denied both public and private education or be jailed? Kakamega High School parents will each pay Sh9,823 for their children to be admitted back on Monday. Crises must have consequences for students and their parents is this line of reasoning. Full implementation of Education Ministry Safety Standards requiring emergency exits, fire extinguishers and evacuation protocols also needs closer attention.

Kenyan Secondary School Head Teachers argue that teacher high-handedness, ineffective counselling and disregard for student views are factors. Students are literally studying, dying while learning. Other factors are fatigue, drug addiction and curriculum overload.

Some have argued that these may be revenge attacks by suspended and out of school students.

The fires provide us with another opportunity to look at school culture and youth masculinity. Nearly two years of stay-at-home Covid-19 protocols has re-socialised many male teenagers. Quick money from informal work or gang crime seriously competes with the belief that grades are keys to careers. Father absenteeism and peer pressure, whether in Cape Town or Mombasa, doesn’t help either.

Male youth self-esteem is eroding when they are expected to have a strong masculine identity and the ability to attract girls and bling.

Exiling deviant students into societies with no corrective or rehabilitative opportunities will not help. The road from deviant to gangster and jailbird is a short highway. Schools must integrate self-care and well-being into academic programmes or school culture will eat school infrastructure overnight.

Why does the Fear of Academic Failure (FAFA) rather than Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) prevail? The late Indian teacher Abdul Kalam was fond of saying, let’s create and internalise in all students the word FAIL as an acronym for “First Attempt In Learning”.

Instilling a sense of better rather than worse, curiosity with what it takes to succeed works for runner Eliud Kipchoge, why not for the youth? Let’s prioritise and motivate attention management not time management. Studying must make sense first. We must create why this is important and the impact of not studying. Learning with a purpose is always more powerful than restrictions. Student-led extra-curricular life and leadership camps, respect for the other gender, farm visits and mentoring are vital.

Self-expression and leadership programmes will produce a generation capable of adventurously innovating businesses, civic organisations, and governments in future.

Perhaps the Kenya Primary Schools Head-Teachers attending next month’s Delegates Conference and all teachers across Kenya and South can bring new solutions.

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