Sunday, February 13, 2011

Education system sickening our children

Sunday Nation 13 February 2011

This past week I have had real cause to fear for the future of our country. At the referral hospital in Eldoret, we saw several children suffering from a psychological disorder called conversion disorder.

This condition is part of a broad range of mental disorders known as somatoform disorders, and is characterised by symptoms suggesting neurological impairment whose cause cannot be found even by the most sophisticated tests available.

Generally, this condition occurs among people with a lot of psychological distress but who are unable to express it because they lack either the language (as is often the case with children) or the opportunity to express it for one reason or another.

Among our young patients, most of the distress could be traced back to the school environment, and we could not help but conclude that many of our schools had become terrible centres of torture.

One of the primary school children we spoke to indicated that the main focus in her school was punishment. The children would be caned severely for dropping in position or scoring lower marks than in a previous examination.

They would be caned if another school or class performed better than their school or class. Indeed, the young lady informed us that their school had target marks for “important” subjects such as Mathematics, English and Science, and anybody scoring below these targets would be caned.

Lower classes

Even children in lower classes are not spared. At one kindergarten in Eldoret town, the children are given so much “homework” that many often fall asleep while trying to complete it at home.

Many kindergartens do not even have a curriculum, and the babies spend inordinate amounts of time trying to master relatively complex principles, including mathematics and long sentences.

Another parent lamented that her son in Form Three in a public school had just been forced to repeat the class because he had not scored the “minimum grade” to move to Form Four.

She is now wondering how she will finance the extra year in school, given that she is a widow surviving on the goodwill of relatives and friends.

The upshot of this is that we are creating a highly stressed population that will in future spend a lot of resources managing chronic physical and psychological illnesses.

In my opinion, the biggest problem is that we have absolutely no idea why we take our children to school.

Many parents take their children to school so that eventually, they get good jobs and elevate the family from the ever-present threat of poverty. As a country, it is not clear whether we have a philosophy underlying our education policy, and if we do, then it must be a horrible philosophy that should never be proclaimed aloud.

National aspirations

Hopefully, as the education “experts” meet to refine our education system in line with the new Constitution, they will examine the underlying philosophy and ask themselves if it faithfully reflects our national aspirations.

If there is no philosophy, let the education ministry ask scholars to help formulate one and policy that will guide all educational institutions in our country.
Alternatively, let us build and equip more mental health centres, and train more mental health workers in preparation for our children’s bleak future.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine


  1. Thank you for your article. I am really concerned about the situation in our primary schools including private. Even in Nairobi, we have cases of the following:1. caning over target marks that are not attained. If a child's target is 80 in maths (according to teacher's rating, and the child scores 70, he will receive 10 strokes! 2. Homework includes copying a whole exam paper, a case in point is a KCPE Swahili paper that the child in class 8 had to literally copy the whole paper including the essays and the 4 choices per question, then circle the correct answer. What is the rationale for such? Is that learning? Mark you, this was not the only homework for the evening, a weekday. There were three more. Since it was too much, the children did not complete the work and you can guess what the consequences were the next day. I don't think our system is wrong, I think it is the people in the system. We have changed the system a few times, made it lighter (I speak as an educationist), but the effect is no different. The approach must change. Do the owners, managers and teachers have the child's interest at heart? It seems that education is more of a business enterprise than transformation of children lives. The children, especially in class 8, do not have enough time to sleep, let alone to play.
    The approach of academics, pressure to perform, alone may not be the best for them. No wonder they get psychiatric complications at such a tender age. We need more dialogue between all the stakeholders in the sector to bring meaningful change in our pre-primary and primary schools.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment. I hope the ministry of education is listening. One administrator I spoke to told me that the managers and teachers at the schools concerned argue that the 'safe' standards cannot work in Kenya! I continue to wonder if they know why people go to school at all!
    Thanks again!


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