It would be hard to find many people in Kenya with quite as good a grasp of Kenyan educational offerings, much less the enthusiasm for for it, as journalist, parent and GSGI Kenya Editor Juliet Barnes. Unexpectedly, at least from a Euro-centric point of view, one is spoilt for choice if looking for a good school in Kenya. In this article is all you need to know, written by this extraordinary GSGI editor/advisor, a woman so intrepid she edited her school write-ups for the GSGI while "sorting out a stroppy bull buffalo" circling her house one summer afternoon.
We're always surprised to hear how many expats and Kenyans send their kids away to boarding schools in South Africa, or if they can afford it, the UK. Frankly we wouldn’t bother to look outside Kenya: there’s an increasingly good range of private Kenyan schools which all maintain high academic standards and generally offer a good range of subject options, their examination results tend to be good, and pupils move on to top universities worldwide.
Most of these schools follow the English National Curriculum - including the Braeburn schools, Hillcrest, Brookhouse, both Peponi schools, St Andrew’s, Greensteds, (all preparatory and secondary); and The Banda, Kenton, and Pembroke (preparatory only). Some of the prep schools do Common Entrance at 13+ (The Banda, Kenton, Peponi House and Pembroke)- and the ones that do expect all children to take it- most of them do British primary SAT’s, and the secondary schools sit IGCSE (apparently harder than GCSE, its British equivalent), as well as AS and A2. Certain schools offer IB (Aga Kahn Aademy, Braeburn College, the International School of Kenya) and a few follow the American system (Rosslyn Academy, the International School of Kenya).
Fees vary – people without company-paid education complain they’re high – people say it can cost more than South African school fees and airfares combined – but there are the cheaper options too, including schools subsidised by certain religious communities.
Kenyan National Schools and Equivalencies
That having been said, I haven’t come across any expatriates who send their children to Kenyan schools. National schools follow the 8-4-4 system, their academic year starting in January, unlike the British and American schools, which follow their overseas counterparts. Kenyans sit their KCPE, following eight years of primary (in English), roughly equivalent to British National Curriculum Year 1 – 8, and taken in 5 subjects: Maths, English, Kiswahili, Science, Social studies, and Christian Religious Education. At secondary level they take their KSGSE after four years of undergraduate studies (in English).
Form 1 – 4 is roughly equivalent to British National Curriculum’s Year 9 – 12 AS level, or the American high school 9th through to12th grades, and is taken in 7/8 subjects from a wide range (Maths, English and Kiswahili are compulsory). It’s possible to do a bridging year at certain Kenyan private schools after the Kenyan KCSE, in order to get into top British Universities.
The local language is Kiswahili – all schools offer it as an option (and it can be taken up to A level). In the rare case of a child arriving at one of the English-speaking schools, those children are brought along quickly. Kenya is so cosmopolitan with so many expats coming and going that most schools manage to mainstream the ESL kids very quicky, and usually there aren’t enough ESL students to slow down the class. The competitive nature of the top schools in Kenya means that most will take the child regardless and pull out all the stops to integrate him/her.
Qualifications of Teachers
One does occasionally hear dark mutterings from parents about the qualifications of teachers, or lack thereof...always a problem for international schools who must balance the lack of ideal CV against the need to have enough teachers to teach courses offered and often required for graduation. Most schools in Kenya (even the best) have a hotch-potch of teachers: some seem to have degrees without an educational additional, others have teaching diploma without the degree etc.
It’s inevitable because the best of Britain’s teachers don’t always see this as a wise career move, and the younger ones often come out just to have a good time or an adventure. The schools have to recruit what they can, including local expat wives occasionally, and a few local teachers usually, too, who are usually, but not always good. Our feeling is that some of the least qualified are often the best (maybe they try harder!) and that you get the good and along with the bad (or weird!) – just like you do in any country. Overall, it doesn't seem to be a problem. And some kids will just clash with some teachers anyway.
Dispute Resolution and Appeals: Is Anybody Listening?
As there's no shortage of good Kenyan private schools who tend to be in healthy competition for pupils, it's rare for any parent's grievances or complaints not to be taken seriously, whether or not there is a PTA. Of course the handling of this varies according to the parent/child/Head or other member of staff involved, but expat parents shouldn't hold back when it comes to confronting important issues. After all, who is paying the fees and whose child is it anyway? Rest assured that as most of these schools are running below capacity they will take you seriously.
Neighbourhoods and Commuting (or not)
Nairobi traffic tends to be a nightmare, even during non-rush hour, although local radio stations are great at keeping you warned and updated. But it’s probably worth looking for schools close to where you live (or alternatively finding a house close to the school you’ve chosen).
Generally, expatriates in Kenya strongly feel it’s inadvisable for youngsters to use local transport services, although plenty of teenagers use taxis when going out at night: the general consensus among parents seems to be that they are safer with a group of friends and a known taxi driver, than some teenager, or his/her sibling in Daddy’s car (minimum driving age 18), who might take advantage of the alarming lack of enforcement of drink-driving laws.
For school transport, many expatriates have their own drivers, although most Kenyan private schools provide bus services, some of them door to door.
The Greater Nairobi Private Day Schools
- The Banda, Hillcrest and Brookhouse are convenient if you live in Karen/Langata area. The International School, Rosslyn, Braeburn College and Peponi Secondary are closer to Muthaiga/Runda areas - which can take an hour from Karen/Langata on bad traffic days.
- The International school, Peponi House and Kenton are convenient for Westlands.
- Braeburn and Kenton are ideal for those living in Lavington, which isn’t impossibly far from Karen/Langata.
- Mombasa on the Kenya coast also has its schools of good repute – Braeburn Mombasa and Coast Academy being two of the best known to expatriates.
- Braeburn also has a school in Kisumu, Western Kenya.
The Up-Country Boarding Option
- St Andrews, Turi, about 4 hours northwest of Nairobi attracts children whose parents are employed in Western Kenya, as well as Uganda.
- Greensteds near Nakuru, 2 and a half hours northwest of Nairobi, attracts children from all over Kenya as well as other African countries, and has lower fees than some of the others.
- Pembroke (preparatory only) near Gilgil, and 2 hours northwest of Nairobi, attract children from all over Kenya, many of them from farms or lodges in the bush, as well as children from Tanzania, Dubai and even the UK.
The Nairobi Boarding Option
One head in favour of boarding, pointed out: “Why let your child spend an hour or more each day sitting in traffic jams in a bus or with a driver when they could be using that time for sport or extra-curricular activities?”
- Closer to Nairobi, Peponi Secondary on the Thika road, north of Nairobi attracts many Nairobi students as weekly boarders, but also has many students from other African countries and remoter parts of Kenya.
- The Banda (preparatory only) has a small boarding facility for weekly boarders.
- Brookhouse also has boarding facilities
Kids who are at boarding school often report they do more prep than back home - they even admit to responding better to teachers than nagging parents. They also say they make closer friendships in the boarding environment.
Kenyan-Curriculum Schools – Are They An Option?
Some of the best-known top National schools include Starehe boys’ school (with a mix of fee-paying and subsidised students) and Strathmore (also boys, with excellent results), and Loreto Convent, Msongari for girls (which also offers IGCSE’s). The student body at these would be local and any expat kids might feel out of place. English is spoken in the playgrounds, but so are Kiswahili and many tribal languages, which would further isolate a foreign pupil.
All the Kenyan private schools generally seem to favour a cosmopolitan and international mix of students. Racism does not seem to be an issue for this generation and at most of the schools; one notices racially mixed friendship groups and notably happy, friendly and polite students. Some schools try to maintain a healthy racial balance, other are less successful: parents might feel the need to have a look at the cultural/racial mix to scout for kids from similar backgrounds if that’s considered important.
Kenyan private schools generally maintain a healthy balance between academics and extra-curricular activities:
Most schools participate in East African Model United Nations (the UN Headquarters for Africa is in Nairobi) and the Presidents Award - the Kenyan equivalent to the Duke of Edinburgh Award. The Kenyan climate and environment is favourable for educational field trips and a variety of sports and interests. The head of Greensteds (who has been awarded an MBE for his work in sports and education in Africa) emphasizes that the quality of private education is no different here in Kenya than in UK adding: “Kenya has the added advantage of a great environment for educational field trips in varied and diverse landscape where the climate is mild all year round.”
Most schools further tend to complete their holistic picture by encouraging the arts. The better funded schools have impressive theatres and music schools, almost all the schools have excellent sports facilities; Kenya offers adequate, albeit not world class, sporting challenges, with healthy competitive spirit and a wide variety of sports enjoyed in the open air, thanks to the benign temperatures in the Kenya highlands. The coast tends to be much hotter, but sport still thrives, and schools travel around to compete against one another.
The up-country schools are closer to outdoor education venues and further from matches – and city evils - although generally speaking schools in Kenya do not have the disciplinary problems we hear about in Europe and America, and most pupils are friendly, polite and keen to learn, one Nairobi school principal assured me.
The Best of Worlds
Thus it’s pretty unlikely you won’t find a school to suit your kids whether you want old-fashioned British, or the alternative Rudolph Steiner type of education (the Waldorf School in Karen offers this). Whether your child is better suited to a boarding regime, or to a larger or smaller school, or he/she excels particularly in sport, academics or the arts; whether you are looking for financial assistance, (scholarships/bursaries) or a school with strong discipline - or one that leaves the discipline up to you - it would be surprising if newcomers to Kenya couldn’t find something to suit them.
Most Kenyan private schools have expatriate heads or principals, although many of the Kenyan heads here are very impressive and would hold their own at any school worldwide. Since as heads, they all have an undeniable influence shaping the school – and indirectly your child - it’s worth finding out how long he/she intends to stay. A high percentage of expat teachers can be an advantage too, as they bring in new ideas, although the down-side is that there can be quite a high turnover of staff in these schools. However, many expatriates, including teachers, tend to enjoy Kenya so much that they just stay on and on…
As your child is going to spend anything up to 20 years (sometimes more) in academic institutions, it’s certainly not a choice to be taken lightly. Expensive schools everywhere nowadays claim to turn out well-adjusted, soundly educated young people, who will go off into the world with healthy attitudes and morals to find a worthwhile, fulfilling career. But from what I’ve observed as a well-travelled parent and teacher, I’d say Kenyan schools are well up there with their international competitors.