Finding the right school shouldn’t be complicated because there just isn’t the choice available as in Nairobi. As always it’s more of a case of ‘matching’ a child to the right school than a search for golden and shiny perfection. No school is perfect all the time, and all three schools reviewed have much to be proud of and are well worth serious consideration.
Which Schools/ Which Curriculum?
Mombasa Academy and Braeburn Mombasa International School (more simply known as BMIS) follow the British Curriculum from pre-primary through to IGCSE, as well as AS and A2, although numbers tend to dwindle in the upper reaches of these schools, especially in BMIS which currently only has one pupil in the upper 6th. They don’t bother with Common Entrance at 13+, although Mombasa Academy pupils sit the 11+ in certain subjects, mainly for internal assessment purposes. The shiny, new kid on the block, the eye-catching Aga Khan Aademy (not to be confused with the older, less glam Aga Kahn High School), offers IB and is currently phasing out IGCSE’s.
The setting and atmosphere differ at all three schools and parents should gauge the “feel” for themselves: BMIS feels laid-back in the best sense, and is set in an attractively coastal, tourist lodge-style campus. Mombasa Academy is more formal, but delightfully welcoming with well-established, light and airy buildings and great facilities. The Aga Khan Academy, the world’s first in a planned international network of academies, is pristine with an impressive no-expenses-spared campus and a serious sense of new-style education.
Fees at the coast are cheaper than at the Nairobi and up-country Kenyan private schools. Mombasa Academy offers scholarships and occasional bursaries, while the Aga Khan fees are subsidised throughout, especially for exceptional and deserving students.
Neighbourhoods and Commuting (or not):
As currently all the schools are essentially day schools location is important. Mombasa Academy is very conveniently located in one of the best residential areas in Nyali. BMIS is situated further north in Shanzu and unlike Mombasa Academy (which only operates buses for trips and matches) it offers a very efficient bus service from surrounding areas. Its boarding houses are situated further north again in Mtwapa. The Aga Khan Academy is based near the Likoni ferry on the south end of Mombasa Island. There are those who feel that the site is a drawback in that getting to it during rush hours can be stressful, but the school offers a highly successful bus service from out-lying areas which seems to cope well with local traffic. Mombasa traffic, rush-hour or not, tends to be a law unto itself, although school transport (goodness knows how) seems to manage to keep on schedule. No school buses run to the south coast.
The Greater Mombasa Private Schools and Boarding Options:
Parents should take a long look at all three schools: and take time to enquire about future plans. Mombasa Academy is well-established on its own prime area land; BMIS is currently trying to buy its currently leased land and failing that may have to move; while the Aga Kahn Academy is there to expand, while implementing its ambitious changes.
Anybody living south of Mombasa or north of Kilifi should look at the small, but homely boarding house in Mtwapa run by BMIS. Mombasa Academy owns some student flats beside the school campus, but these are not but these are not supervised by the school: parents must make their own arrangements. Children will be able to board at Aga Kahn Academy from April 2009 if they are in grade 6 (and they will then be able to progress upwards in the new boarding system).
A few IB-level prefects will also board. The school’s intention is to become 75%-boarding, offering low-cost or free places to outstanding students from all over Africa and beyond. Prospective parents should try not to be over-whelmed by the surroundings, and talk hard and long to current students and their families. Is the Aga Khan Academy ideal, for instance, for under-achieving but able students? And where will it leave local families who don’t wish to board?
These schools generally reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the coast. Until about five years ago Mombasa Academy thrived as clearly the leading British and North American university A-level entrance school. Now it is seriously challenged by the Aga Khan Academy with its International Baccalaureate programme, and by BMIS with its strong backing as part of the well-heeled Braeburn group of schools spread around Nairobi and as far as Kisumu and even Arusha in Tanzania.
The Kenyan-European cliques tend to move together when it comes to schools: currently BMIS (180 pupils, aged 3-18) seems to be the “in” place. But there’s still a balanced mix of ex-pats and locals at the slightly larger Mombasa Academy (302 pupils: aged 2 – 18). The latter also has healthier numbers of pupils at the top end of the school, in spite of some pupils being seduced away by the offer of IB at the substantially larger Aga Kahn Academy (552 pupils, aged 6 – 18).
Some students have drifted back to Mombasa Academy and BMIS claiming that IB was not for them, or that they found the Aga Khan set-up to be a bit impersonal. But the Aga Khan Academy has an excellently qualified staff from many cultures and gives the feel of being truly multi-faith and welcoming in its outlook, so do not be put off by the apparent loyalty to one branch of one faith. The whole set-up is highly impressive with (presumably) total financial security for the future.
These coastal schools have a happy mix of the usual extra activities, excursions, sports, the arts (some more than others) and academics, with added challenges including Kenya’s President’s Award scheme. The coast and surrounding areas offer an exciting blend of educational opportunities, including the marine national parks with their wealth of tropical marine life and added activities such as Turtle Watch. There are scenic areas with diverse geography, wildlife, flora and fauna including the Shimba Hills and the vast Tsavo National Parks. There is, as always in Kenya, no shortage of community service projects to become involved in.
Depending on whether you child is particularly sports-orientated or a talented artist for example, you should look closely at the opportunities and teaching provision, which naturally vary between schools and at different times within the schools, depending on current staff. There are plenty of sporting fixtures, but on the whole sport (except perhaps swimming) is not as strong as in the Nairobi schools.
Meanwhile none of the schools currently seem to be producing outstanding music, but all of them do seem to be putting sufficient energy into drama and art (although Aga Khan Academy maybe less advanced in this domain). Academics are strong: the substantial percentage of parents of Indian origin (who some ex-pats and teacher find are “too pushy with their kids”) on the Kenya coast tends to beef up the classroom competitiveness.
In terms of activities and sports, Aga Khan is probably top of the tree in the opportunities it offers, as well as the excellent staff training programme offered through the IB scheme. Other schools report that Aga Khan regularly attracts some of their better staff members owing to strong salaries and an excellent incentive and training programme. However the British curriculum remains firmly in place at the other schools, well-suited as it is to some students and teachers.
Pupils at all these coast schools came across as well-mannered and serious about their studies, while also very happy. After three days in the area I wouldn’t have minded moving to sea-level myself - and my teenagers wouldn’t have needed much persuasion to follow!