Status anxiety

Real British education lives on in Kenya

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

Driving round Kenya, I’m constantly struck by the sheer number of schools. Every 500 yards there’s a hand-painted sign advertising the virtues of some ‘academy’ or other. The truly remarkable thing is that at least 10 per cent boast of teaching the ‘British curriculum’.

The reason this is remarkable isn’t just because there’s no such thing as a ‘British curriculum’ and hasn’t been since responsibility for education policy was devolved to the UK’s regional parliaments. There’s an English National Curriculum that dates back to the last government, but it’s hardly the envy of the world. On the contrary, it’s a mishmash of New Labour gobbledegook about ‘skills’ and ‘diversity’ and helps explain why our schoolchildren have plummeted in the international league tables. I’m 99.9 per cent certain that not a single one of the pupils at these Kenyan schools is learning about Mary Seacole.

But the really striking thing — heartbreaking, really — is that the word ‘British’ attached to a form of education is still considered a kite-mark of quality. It’s so at odds with reality, it’s a little like passing a Kenyan electrical shop boasting of selling ‘British televisions’. (Not something I’ve seen, obviously.) How on earth has the reputation of ‘British’ education survived in Kenya, in spite of the vandalism wreaked on our schools by successive governments since the mid-1960s?

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The answer, I think, is that the best schools in Kenya are the small, English-style prep schools that date back to the colonial era. Schools like Pembroke House in Gilgil, where I’ve put my own four children for half a term. In these antiquated institutions, which seem to have been preserved in aspic from the 1950s, the ideals of British education have survived, untarnished by state interference.

My four-year-old son Charlie, for instance, who’s in pre-prep, is enjoying the kind of experience that in England would only be available to children aged 14 and above. He’s allowed to cycle around the extensive school grounds completely unsupervised. He plays hockey, even though the stick is taller than him. He’s learning how to ride. For the first time in his life, he’s being treated as someone capable of making intelligent decisions about his own welfare instead of being swaddled in a health-and-safety blanket. He’s absolutely loving it.

To a certain extent, this sort of education is dependent on resources — playing fields, stables, etc — that a typical English state school simply doesn’t have. But it’s also about the attitude of the staff to the children. They trust them to be sensible — and, if they aren’t, to learn from their mistakes. Another example: My seven-year-old son Ludo is allowed to bring a penknife into school. (Useful for killing poisonous snakes.) Children entering Gilgil aren’t required to go through a metal detector as they are at so many English schools, but if they were it would be to check that they’re suitably well armed to deal with whatever threat nature might throw at them.

As for the school trips, they’re the sort of thing that children’s dreams are made of. Later this month, my nine-year-old daughter is off to participate in the ‘Hog Chase’, a gruelling two-day competition in which the children have to tackle a series of challenges that would put the SAS to shame. Exhaustion, dehydration and broken limbs are common, but the Year Fives wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s a rite of passage that all the pupils at Pembroke go through.

Trusting children in this way fosters self-reliance and builds character — two qualities that have long fallen out of fashion in the majority of British schools. Indeed, any school organising the equivalent of the ‘Hog Chase’ in the Home Counties would soon have child protection officers crawling all over it. Is the sergeant major-type screaming at the children to crawl on their bellies underneath the camouflage net CRB-checked? And what does the statutory guidance on ‘safeguarding’ have to say about dumping children in the middle of nowhere and expecting them to find their way back to camp with nothing more than a map and a compass?

But it’s not just the sport and the extracurricular activities that make Pembroke such a wonderful school. It’s the Latin and the history and ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ in chapel every Sunday. Seeing the kind of -education my children are getting, it’s little wonder that so many makeshift, roadside schools in Kenya boast of teaching the ‘British curriculum’. If only we had as much reverence for it back home.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.


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Show comments
  • Claire Cook

    Best Prep school in the world!

  • son of africa

    Biased education..racist.

  • Mosside Governor

    How refreshing to see you in such close agreement with ,albeit the minority, of parents at my school. Why it warms my heart to see parents relinquish the fetters of modern parenting and step back while their eight year olds roam the streets after dark on ponies with penknives. You don’t have to pay prep school fees to get quality parenting Toby!!!

  • Mosside Governor

    Hilarious as always. Your regular parodies of a right wing opinionated I’ll informed old duffer devoid of any social empathy or responsibility never fail to entertain. I love the way that because you’ve pimped out of the fees, you forget it’s a private school and compare it to UK state education. I think it’s inspired to ignore any mention of the Kenyan state education system , a truly narrow and irrelevant piece of writing. Jolly well done.

    • disqus_w2D1SC7ROi

      I assume you meant ill not I’ll. You could do with some commas in there too… must be your state school education.

      • Mosside Governor

        Wrong disqus_blahty-blah ! These were deliberate mistakes put
        into lure the defensive right-wing pedant and his mermidons into sneering at
        a dissenter’s education . You fell for it !

        By the way I was top achieving student for 7 years at selective narrow minded Grammar School in Top 50 schools – and I envy my children their bigot- free comprehensive education ]

  • RBcritique

    My (Kenyan) sister-in-law is relocating to Kenya from UK in order to give her children a decent education. Oxford & Cambridge Board exams, not Edexcel. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    • Mosside Governor

      I ‘m sure she’ll applaud colonial schools such as Pembroke who are clearly striving to serve one of Kenya’s ethnic minorities above all else. Why out of 24 teaching staff all but one is recruited from the the white ethnic minority teaching pool.

      • RBcritique

        Sorry, and your point is ?

        • rf

          well RB imagine your sister-in-law was a teacher looking for a job in her home country of Kenya…she applies to Pembroke ( that little piece of England )…now looking at the profiles of the teachers and assuming she’s up against a caucasian with the same qualifications – think carefully now – do you think she’d get the job ?.

          • RBcritique

            Thank you for your comment, rf. I think she could only assume that each case was taken on its own merit and that there is no hint of discrimination. It seems to me that the parents are only too happy to patronise the school by sending their children there and would take a rather dim view of any allegation of racism. I think it’s scurrilous that it’s even broached, but the source of such allegations doesn’t surprise me in the least. Not content with having thoroughly, systematically wrecked our own education system, they are now intent on spreading the politics of resentment abroad. How sad.

          • Mosside Governor

            Hmmm so , RB , in your little piece of old England it’s “scurrilous to broach” the subject of racism.?

            I have to say I do admire Toby Young’s iconoclastic and provocative prose ; he succeeds in not only baiting the looney left but also showing the far right at their reactionary worst ; it’s sheer bloody brilliance!

          • RBcritique

            No, Mosside. Racism is obviously alive and kicking . Is it cos Kenyans is black that you are so upset ? Certainly in your little piece of new England it’s obligatory in any and all relations between people of different ethnicities NOT to broach the subject of racism. In fact, it’s de rigeur the first port of call. Again, it would be laughable if it weren’t so miserably, reductively sad, worn-out and inevitable. However, we do at least agree on the stimulating nature of Toby Young’s journalism, so there is a ray of brilliant sunshine somewhere outside of Kenya, even in mossy old England.

  • Eddie

    I agree so much with this. In Africa, they use an old-fashioned, knowledge-based curriculum, with traditional top-down teaching and good discipline. That is seen in the UK (by the educationalists who have trashed our school system) as being ‘non-U’: teachers here are not teachers, but ‘facilitators; pupils are ‘learners’; the purpose of schools in the UK, it seems, is to boost “students'” self-esteem and continually show them ‘rispek’ (the little brats and their idiot parents are in charge here, not the teachers).
    But what to do? There is more rot than good wood now, so one cannot trust any school here, frankly.
    I remember reading about African teachers coming to UK secondary schools and being appalled at the total lack of discipline of our ‘little monsters’ – where even a violently disruptive pupil in a primary school task goes utterly unpunished for tantrums (in fact, the head teacher gave him chocolate biscuits as a reward when the black/coloured South African teacher sent him to the head – though this being the UK, the teacher was not allowed to restrain or touch the child, so getting him out from under the table and to the head took an hour of disruption for everyone else). What is surprising is how so many kids from African backgrounds in the UK behave as badly or worse than the white kids – in Africa they’d sit obediently learning by rote – and nothing wrong with that either, especially for times tables and spelling and historical (and other) facts.
    There are good schools in the UK who stay vaguely traditional – grammars, some private schools – but even these offer an infantilised, group-huggy, pc, dumbed-down curriculum, and they have discipline issues too.
    Can’t we slaughter the sacred cow of ‘self-esteem’ together wth all educationalists – that would help us meet the aims and objectives of recreating a decent school system in the UK again.

  • Ceri

    “How on earth has the reputation of ‘British’ education survived in Kenya, in spite of the vandalism wreaked on our schools by successive governments since the mid-1960s?”

    The question is, how on Earth has the reputation of ‘British’ education survived in Africa and other parts of the world full stop?

  • sceptic3

    And I bet there’s no gay recruitment classes.

  • RBcritique

    No, Mosside. Racism is obviously alive and kicking. Is it cos Kenyans is black that you are so upset ? Certainly in your little piece of new England it’s obligatory in any and all relations between people of different ethnicities NOT to broach the subject of racism. In fact, it’s de rigeur the first port of call. Again, it would be laughable if it weren’t so miserably, reductively sad, worn-out and inevitable. However, we do at least agree on the stimulating nature of Toby Young’s journalism, so there is a ray of brilliant sunshine somewhere outside of Kenya, even in mossy old England.

    • Mosside Governor

      I don’t quite follow ; first you say it’s scurrilous to broach the subject of racism then you say that in my world it’s obligatory NOT to broach the subject of racism ( have you been drinking ???) I realise you intend to use the phrase ” is it cos Kenyans is black ” in a pejorative sense to me but all is does is highlight how repellent your views are. However, in answer to your question, YES it is because Kenya is a black country and Pembroke school with its heavy majority of white pupils , £11k/annum fees and 95% white teaching staff perpetuates the colonial myth of supremacy. Each to their own but it’s wrong to hold them up as an education model to aspire to.

  • Kiboko

    What a debate!! Being a past pupil at Pembroke House I can reiterate the freedom that was allowed to us all being within the structured daily curriculum.
    Yes, we did have pen knives at school which we used to build shelters and bows and arrows. But we also could take our guns to school – they were all stored safely and securely and we had to get permission to use them, we were only allowed air rifles.
    I personally had an incredible experience at the school and I think many others too. If we were naughty we were not only told off but got a hiding with the “takie” (plimsole) and if more serious, the cane. We deserved the punishment and we understood that we had crossed the line.
    The school was mixed, whites, blacks and Asians. We were all there together, as one unit and one team. We supported one another as brothers. Maybe the teachers were white, but the experience at the school was influenced by the incredible support staff, from cooks to cleaners who were always there for you – not pampering after you but supporting you, always with a warm friendly face.
    The curriculum we followed was geared to the Common Entrance examination. Not all pupils went on to Uk schools afterwards, some continued their education in Kenya, others went to school in South Africa, and others went back to the States. In a way you could say it was elitist but it was incredible.
    I passed my Common Entrance examinations to my intended school in the Uk only to receive a letter that they had changed their application requirements and that as the head master at the time had not interviewed me, I was unable to attend. I went to see the head master (with my father) who was shocked to see that we were white!! I had to resist the exams again to be admitted which I did and passed. I found out soon afterwards that my original grades were higher that those of other pupils who had been allowed into the school in the September. Now, I must point out the racism here, and the pompous attitude of British people toward all Africans – be them black or white. My early teenage years were spent being accused of a racist against blacks, and because of my accent, some shops refused to serve me. UK at its best – narrow mindedness. I had to learn how to speak like a “pom” to get along. I did. I put it down to the incredible experience that I had at Pembroke House.
    Now I note that CRB checks are important. An English teacher was recruited with good references to teach at Pembroke. He settled in and his desires toward young boys reared its ugly face. He did abuse a friend, a good friend. As pupils we dealt with him as we knew how ( in the article it mentioned the SAS like training) and then informed the head master who removed him instantly from the school and he was on the next flight back to Blighty the next day. Physical abuse cannot be tolerated anywhere and that teacher returned from Kenya to probably teach again in another school and abuse other little boys. My friend still suffers from the memory. He does not discuss it.
    But please do not dismiss a school that put ALL it efforts into the pupils. They are not elitist, they facilitate an incredible, yes, incredible learning environment that provides a pupil with a truly rounded (and grounded) experience that lives with them for the rest of their lives. Most of all, they learn to respect others, of any nationality, race and creed.

  • Patrick Shah

    As a non-white Pembroke parent, I find myself, against my better judgment, compelled to enter into the fray. I also realise I am 4 months late, having just seen Toby’s article while searching for something else. We moved our son out of the school he was going to in Uganda into Pembroke a little over a year ago. The reasons we chose Pembroke are simple: Its traditional attitude towards discipline and growth, its (yes, believe it or not) inclusiveness, its sporting ethic, its rural setting, its pride in its history and the experience and qualifications of its teaching staff. Yes, Pembroke comes from unashamedly colonial roots, but it used that some time ago to morph into an institution that cherishes and protects the best aspects of a small community school, while being truly international in its student intake. We’re not alone – 7 other Ugandan families, 5 of which are black, have thought the same way and chosen Pembroke for their children’s education.

    I’m afraid all of the 20-odd “international schools” in East Africa charge fees in the £11-15k p.a. range. It’s a fact of life that if you want your child to receive what is now perceived in East Africa as a “good” education, you pay the fees. It is sad that these days we have to pay these amounts for our children to experience what we took for granted growing up: the chance to represent your school against other schools at competitive cricket, hockey or rugby and win (or lose), the chance to take responsibility, the chance to earn the respect of your peers, the chance to take risks, and the guarantee of top class teaching support.

    These schools are as diverse as East Africa’s upper middle class (if there be such a thing) increasingly is, and the ethnic diversity of each is representative of the constituency it serves. The makeup of international schools in Kenya simply isn’t a colour thing, it’s a money thing. As is to be expected, all the Nairobi-based schools are more diverse, in keeping with their city location. Pembroke serves a community that largely lives outside Nairobi, and in many cases, outside Kenya. This translates to over 50% of the students being white. No fault of the school I say, and certainly not the result of a school policy, imagined or otherwise. Actually, I am puzzled as to why this should upset anyone, although perhaps distant armchair analysts with little else to occupy their time might find it titillating…

    Of course, paying the sort of fees we are talking about entitles parents to demand the very best teaching staff the school can recruit out of a global pool. Again, I see no shame in this. Private school fees outside East Africa being what they are, we thoroughly endorse a system that gives our children the chance to earn a scholarship. In my opinion, Pembroke manages to achieve this very well with a teaching staff comprised of black and white Kenyans, the odd American and Canadian, and several Brits.

  • patinafrica

    As a non-white Pembroke parent, I find myself, against my better judgment, compelled to enter into the fray. I also realise I am 4 months late, having just seen Toby’s article while searching for something else. We moved our son out of the school he was going to in Uganda into Pembroke a little over a year ago. The reasons we chose Pembroke are simple: Its traditional attitude towards discipline and growth, its (yes, believe it or not) inclusiveness, its sporting ethic, its rural setting, its pride in its history and the experience and qualifications of its teaching staff. Yes, Pembroke comes from unashamedly colonial roots, but it used that some time ago to morph into an institution that cherishes and protects the best aspects of a small community school, while being truly international in its student intake. We’re not alone – 7 other Ugandan families, 5 of which are black, have thought the same way and chosen Pembroke for their children’s education.

    I’m afraid all of the 20-odd “international schools” in East Africa charge fees in the £11-15k p.a. range. It’s a fact of life that if you want your child to receive what is now perceived in East Africa as a “good” education, you pay the fees. It is sad that these days we have to pay these amounts for our children to experience what we took for granted growing up: the chance to represent your school against other schools at competitive cricket, hockey or rugby and win (or lose), the chance to take responsibility, the chance to earn the respect of your peers, the chance to take risks, and the guarantee of top class teaching support.

    These schools are as diverse as East Africa’s upper middle class (if there be such a thing) increasingly is, and the ethnic diversity of each is representative of the constituency it serves. The makeup of international schools in Kenya simply isn’t a colour thing, it’s a money thing. As is to be expected, all the Nairobi-based schools are more diverse, in keeping with their city location. Pembroke serves a community that largely lives outside Nairobi, and in many cases, outside Kenya. This translates to over 50% of the students being white. No fault of the school I say, and certainly not the result of a school policy, imagined or otherwise. Actually, I am puzzled as to why this should upset anyone, although perhaps distant armchair analysts with little else to occupy their time might find it titillating…

    Of course, paying the sort of fees we are talking about entitles parents to demand the very best teaching staff the school can recruit out of a global pool. Again, I see no shame in this. Private school fees outside East Africa being what they are, we thoroughly endorse a system that gives our children the chance to earn a scholarship. In my opinion, Pembroke manages to achieve this very well with a teaching staff comprised of black and white Kenyans, the odd American and Canadian, and several Brits.

  • Sameena Bogler

    Dear Mr Young – I could not agree more with your analysis of British education and the lack of rigour and discipline in schools. We homeschool our son – now 6 – and the difference in maturity and ability that we see comparing him with other six year olds is startling. He writes fluently in cursive, reads fluently, is doing maths that I gather only 8 year olds are exposed to and we are steeping him in ideas and challenges that are unheard of in British schools nowadays. He reads Dickens and Shakespeare and everything else that can really be called a classic (our son knows and loves the plots of Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello – he has never heard of Spongewhatsit – why would we give him inferior, modern stories when the best written and conceived stories and adventures are already out there?). Enid Blyton books are introducing him to values for children that are no longer taught – boys in her stories were brave, courteous and resourceful. Qualities we should all abhor – greed, bullying, meanness, dishonesty – are roundly punished in them. There are no computers for our son and no TV (except wonderful DVDs like “Life on Earth” and some old fashioned “Star Treks” – again the values are tremendous in many of the old shows) – just books and real things to play with. We all love science and grow things, do experiments with chemicals and magnets and read about great scientists, inventors and explorers. Our son plays very good classical, two-handed piano – because homeschooling has given us so much time to do a few things well – and that leaves time for him to lie about, wander in the garden, look at clouds – let his mind idle – because that is the only, true and solid way that learning and thinking happens – not by filling our children’s days with ‘activities’. He gets sleep – he gets gentle starts to the day reading in bed. Nothing is pushed or rushed, but learning is happening so fast and so solidly and profoudly that even I am amazed. When I see him with other children (and there is so much opportunity to mix with children when homeschooling – fencing, soccer and piano are all in groups), it is the 8 year olds that he is drawn to – all the six year olds are still babies. Twenty years ago, our son would have not stood out because the six year olds would have been like him and schools would have been gently teaching the vital basics over and over – not filling young heads with a confusion of ideologies – details of a hundred different religions and global warming politics. Nowadays old library books marked “nursery” end up in junior and even secondary schools (assuming they have a book library not just computer banks) because it is assumed that young children cannot cope with sophisticated writing. The blame is of course liberalism, poor parenting and a fundamental misunderstanding of what children can do and how they learn – educators no longer understand their business. So it needs to be up to parents. By taking control of their education and their lifestyle, you can give them the sorts of experiences and values you had. Just don’t give children over to schools – not at least in their early years. And like us, hold out as long as possible. Why would we had our son over to an institution when he is so happy, secure, self-reliant and able? Most schools in Britain are, tragically, no longer places for an able child – and what they learn from other children (the socialisation that people bang on about) is entirely the wrong sort of learning. No parent needs a ‘normal’ school who puts their mind to finding an alternative. I would be very happy to discuss this more and to find out if there are schools out there that can meet the real needs of all children. ahmad.sameena@gmail.com

  • Sameena Bogler

    Dear Mr Young – I could not agree more with your analysis of British education and the lack of rigour and discipline in schools. We homeschool our son – now 6 – and the difference in maturity and ability that we see comparing him with other six year olds is startling. He writes fluently in cursive, reads fluently, is doing maths that I gather only 8 year olds are exposed to and we are steeping him in ideas and challenges that are unheard of in British schools nowadays. He reads Dickens and Shakespeare and everything else that can really be called a classic (our son knows and loves the plots of Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello – he has never heard of Spongewhatsit – why would we give him inferior, modern stories when the best written and conceived stories and adventures are already out there?). Enid Blyton books are introducing him to values for children that are no longer taught – boys in her stories were brave, courteous and resourceful. Qualities we should all abhor – greed, bullying, meanness, dishonesty – are roundly punished in them. There are no computers for our son and no TV (except wonderful DVDs like “Life on Earth” and some old fashioned “Star Treks” – again the values are tremendous in many of the old shows) – just books and real things to play with. We all love science and grow things, do experiments with chemicals and magnets and read about great scientists, inventors and explorers. Our son plays very good classical, two-handed piano – because homeschooling has given us so much time to do a few things well – and that leaves time for him to lie about, wander in the garden, look at clouds – let his mind idle – because that is the only, true and solid way that learning and thinking happens – not by filling our children’s days with ‘activities’. He gets sleep – he gets gentle starts to the day reading in bed. Nothing is pushed or rushed, but learning is happening so fast and so solidly and profoudly that even I am amazed. When I see him with other children (and there is so much opportunity to mix with children when homeschooling – fencing, soccer and piano are all in groups), it is the 8 year olds that he is drawn to – all the six year olds are still babies. Twenty years ago, our son would have not stood out because the six year olds would have been like him and schools would have been gently teaching the vital basics over and over – not filling young heads with a confusion of ideologies – details of a hundred different religions and global warming politics. Nowadays old library books marked “nursery” end up in junior and even secondary schools (assuming they have a book library not just computer banks) because it is assumed that young children cannot cope with sophisticated writing. The blame is of course liberalism, poor parenting and a fundamental misunderstanding of what children can do and how they learn – educators no longer understand their business. So it needs to be up to parents. By taking control of their education and their lifestyle, you can give them the sorts of experiences and values you had. Just don’t give children over to schools – not at least in their early years. And like us, hold out as long as possible. Why would we had our son over to an institution when he is so happy, secure, self-reliant and able? Most schools in Britain are, tragically, no longer places for an able child – and what they learn from other children (the socialisation that people bang on about) is entirely the wrong sort of learning. No parent needs a ‘normal’ school who puts their mind to finding an alternative. I would be very happy to discuss this more and to find out if there are schools out there that can meet the real needs of all children. ahmad.sameena@gmail.com

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