Monday, 1 August 2016

Who is setting Kenyan schools on fire?

As at this morning, at least seven pupils are being treated for shock and minor injuries after a dormitory at St Augustine Primary School in Mombasa, Kenya, caught fire on Sunday night. The girl's dormitory accommodated 135 pupils caught fire at about 11.30 pm.

Dozens of secondary schools across Kenya have been deliberately set on fire and the authorities struggle to pinpoint why.

 In the last three months, 117 Kenyan schools have been partially burnt by arsonists.

Yet the arson attacks, which are countrywide, don't seem to correspond to any of the usual ethnic, geographical or socioeconomic fault lines that often spark tension in Kenya.

A confidential report by the police and education ministry seen by AFP identifies a clear pattern of behaviour in the planning of the crimes, as the authorities struggle to contain the dangerous acts.

The fires "mainly affect dormitories where students sleep, and appear well coordinated because so far students have never been caught by the fire, meaning they escape well in advance with prior knowledge," the report said.

In response, education minister Fred Matiang'i has held several meetings with teachers, religious leaders and police, and more than 150 students have been arrested so far.

But the problem persists. Identifying those orchestrating the attacks is proving difficult.

The media has relayed fears of parents for their children's safety along with strongly-worded editorials condemning the incidents as symptomatic of a soft touch approach to parenting and education in Kenya today.

"An education system in which students burn hostels and destroy school property every day is an indictment of the collective ethos of a nation. It is a shame and a reflection of a society gone haywire," the Daily Nation newspaper thundered on Thursday.

The government has meanwhile seized upon recent reforms designed to stop epidemic levels of cheating to explain the fires.

They say the burning schools are a form of punishment from a "cartel" formerly linked to the country's exam-setting body, which used to profit handsomely from selling papers and answers.

Leaked  exam questions were exchanged by text messages and on social media, with some sold for around $10.

The cheating ring was dismantled in March 2015 and several senior figures from the government agency were arrested.

Others blame students themselves, saying they are scared of failing their exams, and still more point to their parents, whom they say are angry after losing out financially due to the cheating crackdown.

The role of education minister Matiang'i is also a suspected factor, following months of complaints from teachers, students and parents against his tough approach.

Matiang'i has effectively reduced the length of the school holidays by modifying the scholastic calendar, and has altered the allocation of funds for school supplies, angering the education establishment.

He has carried out surprise visits to schools, publicly taking teachers to task in a way that has reportedly left them feeling humiliated.

The minister has earned the nickname "Magufuli" as a result, in reference to the tight ship administration run by the Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who has cracked down on ministerial incompetence and wasteful public spending.

Students have exams coming up in October. How safe are they?