To say that education ranks highly amongst the issues occupying the minds of Kenyans would be an understatement. In fact, you’d find it difficult to strike up a conversation with any Kenyan without it veering into the topic of education. Yet it is rare for these discussions to involve the actual physical space where learning occurs; the only exception being when disaster strikes, particularly since fires have long been problematic in Kenya’s school system. It is in this context that I began my work in mid-2017, with the aim of developing and proposing a specific architectural type for Nairobi’s schools of the future.
We started our study by visiting several schools to analyze their design, before then interviewing people who had experience in the direct management of public schools. During the focus group, we talked to teachers and school administrators about how they used their spaces, and what their desired and prioritised improvements would be. Respondents listed the various activities that school spaces hosted and supported for the community, which ranged from elections to emergency relief. Over the course of the discussions, it became clear that they were describing the school as a psychosocial place that has become a critical pillar of the communities they exist in, both physically and socioeconomically.
Now, this idea of a school as an important social institution, both physically and psycho-emotionally, is not new. In his 1970 paper titled The School as a Social Institution, Dragutin Popovic, argues that “The social activities of pupils [in and around the school] results in a more rapid development of social maturity.” Indeed, since 2002 when Free Primary Education (FPE) was introduced, the question, ‘Why are you not in school?’ is now prevalent in Kenyan society and its effect on everyday life is far-reaching. Communities are increasingly demanding that children of school going age be enrolled in school at the expense of other life activities. For example, communities in Transmara, Narok County are reporting a rise in the age of victims of FGM and early marriage. There seems to have evolved a sort of ‘KCPE watershed’ where all other life functions are allowed only after the completion of primary education. The situation is similar for male students, with a claim that circumcision rites are now being practiced after completion of primary education. It’s as if we have begun equating the completion of this education stage as a pre-requisite for other milestones. And what’s more, the proportion of these activities being physically hosted within the school compound is increasing. Our focus group discussion also suggested that the subsequent growth in private schools, post FPE, can be seen as an effect of this re-prioritisation of the school as an important ‘place’, as it shows a society willing to invest more resources in the establishment and maintenance of high standard schools.