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?
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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013