Most parents wait for KCPE results to find the best schools for their children. They will sit in front of the TV watching the KCPE results announcement, buy newspapers to see which school produced the highest performing candidates. Usually, this is a free marketing opportunity for private primary schools. Regardless of the effort put in by the teachers, they will work hard to get pictures of candidates to stick to their walls should they do well. They will hold ceremonies to celebrate and in the evening hold an urgent meeting to revise school fees. Now if your child is still in the competitive 8-4-4 system, don’t start running up and down finding the best-performed school or putting unnecessary pressure on teachers to produce the top performers of their year.
As you know, every child is different, and so is every class in a school. There are students that are strong academically while others are not. Exams are also different, and candidates handle them differently.
My son changed schools 7 times from Standard One to Seven, but this did not prevent him from performing well. He was among the 3 candidates who scored 400 and above in his school, and hence qualified to join a national school. While work and finances forced us to move to all these schools, here are things I would encourage every parent to look at when finding a school for their children:
- Infrastructure. The most basic one is well-build classrooms with desks and ample space. Not every school can afford this, and most public schools may be crowded. However, if you are taking your child to a private school, ensure that it has enough classrooms. See how the classrooms look and ask the number of students in each. If it is a boarding school, ensure that the dormitories are constructed according to the ministry requirements. In terms of offices, most private schools do not have staffrooms and thus teachers just sit in class with the students. I don’t find anything wrong with this, because it means there is always someone holding the students accountable during their free time.
- Weather. Some places are dry while others are very cold. If your child is asthmatic or is allergic to extreme weather conditions, avoid taking them to schools that will affect their health. I remember my son struggling with chest issues due to a cold swimming pool. Towards the exams, two boys got asthma attacks and ended up not performing as they usually did.
- Food. This is especially important if your child is going to board. Find out what is in the school menu. There is a school I visited one Sunday only to find students eating Ugali and steamed cabbage. They were being served tea and two slices of bread in the morning and encouraged to buy cakes and crisps from the school canteen for 10.00 tea break. I tried to ask them to supply my son with bread but to no avail. The school director insisted that it was cumbersome for them to buy bread, and so I ended up finding alternatives to the cakes and crisps. Others will never serve fruits and your child may have to make own arrangements to get supplies. You can be dropping them, make arrangements with the school for a weekly supply of fruits, or encourage the child to make arrangements with day scholars if any.
- Water is another issue that can bring a lot of health problems. At home, people have embraced bottled water to stay off water-borne diseases, but at school, very few people care. Dirty drinking water is not safe for anyone, anywhere. Ask where the school gets its supply of drinking water, and whether it is treated to be made safe for drinking. I have seen some schools ask parents to buy bottled water for their children, especially in very dry areas.
- School uniform. Every school has its own approved school uniform. Some have logos while others don’t. Some schools demand that you only buy from their offices while others send you to a designated supplier. Ensure that you get the right uniform, and find out if they allow any other form of warm clothing for the cold weather.
- Accessibility. Gone are the days when children could walk themselves to school. Insecurity, accidents and other unforeseen circumstances have made it too risky for children to walk or cross the roads alone. Children have been hit by cars, trains, and riders while trying to access a school that was just closeby. Others have disappeared only to be found later, dead. Others have been raped, not forgetting those girls who seek favours from bodaboda riders to be dropped to school and back home only to end up pregnant. If a school does not have a school bus, ensure that you can drop your children to school and pick them up in time. Ensure also the place is safe enough for the children should they decide to walk one day.
- Content. Though it is against the ministry guidelines, some schools still administer admission interviews at a cost. Such interviews involve the writing of a paper. Well, there are interviews my son did, passed but never took the opportunity. Some were because of other factors such as high fees (most schools will only show you the fees structure after the interview, which I think is a ploy to make some money from interviews), but the majority were because of their marking schemes. If I spotted a wrong especially being marked right, I gave up immediately. I would go through the answers one by one, and see how they marked Insha and Composition to pick whether the teachers were good models or not. I must admit that this may not be necessary if your child is joining a public school, but I have spotted many competence issues in Private schools. Nevertheless, you will always need to be there to guide your child and also check what they are learning in school. I have been called a parent-teacher but well, if you take the back seat and let others parent for you, you may not like the end result.
- Fees. This is very important because you want to be able to settle your child’s school fees in time to fund school operations. Public schools charge as low as 2000 per term, while the rate can go very high in private schools. Well, when I took my son to the last school he sat his exam, the fees for boarders was around 35,000. However, immediately after they registered for exams, the school gave us the shock of our lives by sending a fee note of over 60,000! Make sure you see the fee structure for the entire year, and all classes and find out about their fees revision policies because some school heads can be very manipulative. Find out also if they have other charges such as caution, exam fee, textbook maintenance, etc. I once turned down an admission offer after I was told to pay 35,000 in admission costs and an extra 7,000 monthly for transport! The school was next to my workplace, and I was spending only 3,000 on transport monthly. Paying 7,000 for my son didn’t make sense given the distance was the same, only that I couldn’t count on taking him to school and picking him in the evening because of my shift hours.
- Resources. Some schools offer exercise books, while others don’t. Others offer mattresses, cups, plates, spoons and so on. However, the most important resource you need in a school is a library. If you are paying for textbooks, find out if children have time to go to the library to read, and if you need to buy supplementary books. Most of the time, textbook levy does not mean that you will never buy textbooks. Actually, it rarely makes a difference.
- Extra-curricular activities. Will your child be focusing only on books, or does the school have any extra-curricular activities? Find out if they have PE lessons, clubs, societies, games and a timetable for extra-curricular activities. A school with a playground is likely to be engaging in sports. But do not assume, ask. In addition, find out how the school timetable looks. Sometimes, private schools may overload students with work without giving them free time for private studies or group discussions. I once visited a public school in Machakos county and was impressed by their timetable. It was the first school I found with a slot for group discussions on Saturday. If it were a high school, this school would have been a national school. If the school is a boarding school, it is important to find out where the children get spiritual nourishment for the week. Spiritual wellbeing is just as important as academic and physical wellbeing. Besides, spiritual growth goes hand in hand with hope. Your child needs to know that there is a source of hope when things don’t go well.
In conclusion, do not rush to take your child to those expensive schools that topped in this year’s KCPE. Students have passed from unknown schools, private and public schools. Find a school that meets your child’s needs and one that will give them an opportunity to be a wholesome being. In any case, good grades in KCPE do not always translate to good grades in KCSE. Let your child learn at their own pace.