Kenyan schools face closure over safety standards
The Government has ordered school officials to ensure boarding facilities comply with basic safety standards.
A nationwide inspection will soon be launched to ensure this happens and to close down offending schools.
Describing most school dormitories as “death traps”, Education Minister Mutula Kilonzo promised to deregister public and private schools that don’t comply. The move came as a row erupted over whether teachers are doing enough to help ensure student safety and well-being while in school.
Despite the fact that teachers are best placed to raise the alarm over failures to adhere to basic safety rules, union officials say their members leave the job to the small number of quality officers working for the Education ministry.
The Police are investigating the circumstances around the deaths of eight pupils at Asumbi Girls Boarding Primary School in Homa Bay. The children, who should have been on holiday, were reportedly trapped in a locked dormitory when a fire broke out on Wednesday night.
Mutula on Friday ordered administrative action against several officials he blames for contributing to the children’s deaths. He said he is also seeking legal advice from the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions on whether criminal charges can be preferred against any of those involved.
“The information we have is that the watchman refused to open the gate even when the fire started at the school. The door to the dormitory was also padlocked and the key was nowhere around,” he said. “We are also told the hall did not even have a functioning fire extinguisher.”
Both the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) and the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers say it is the responsibility of the ministry to ensure safety guidelines are implemented. The argument may be tested in court should the Government prefer charges over Asumbi.
“The Ministry has a quality assurance department to inspect schools. They should take the blame because the guidelines have been here since 2008,” said Kuppet national chairman Omboko Milemba.
Knut Secretary General Okuta Osiany made the same argument, refusing to blame headteachers whose schools do not comply with safety regulations.
“We should not shift responsibilities. They have quality assurance officers who are paid every month. What do they do?” he said.
Teachers’ unions have in the past come under fire for their focus on employee welfare issues to the exclusion of other issues, such as education quality and safety in schools.
On Friday, Homa Bay Deputy OCPD Kennedy Wabwoba said investigators had returned to Asumbi to probe what caused the tragedy. He refuted claims from residents that a team had come from Nairobi to carry out the investigation.
“Our team is already at the scene. We are going to carry out the investigations as diligently as possible to ensure we present findings to the public in time,” Wabwoba said.
Area DC Nur Dube said identifying the dead pupils was ongoing.
“So far, five bodies have been identified, but three groups of parents are still claiming the (three remaining) children.
“However, we are going on with the identification,” Dube said.
The DC said he would call a meeting today with parents of the eight to come up with modalities of identifying the remaining three.
He added that the Government would be involved in the burial of the deceased, but the participation would depend on arrangements of the bereaved families and the school management committee.
?“We have not yet decided on whether to hold a mass burial. But we will come up with a resolution in our meeting,” the DC said.
Mutula said all dormitories must be redesigned to comply with the ministry’s Safety Standards Manual.
He also ordered an end to holiday tuition even as many schools clandestinely continued to conduct full class teaching. He warned disciplinary action would be taken against education officials and school boards found flouting education policies.
“Any official who still condones holiday tuition would go home,” he said. The minister said he has sacked the Homa Bay County Director of Education Beatrice Asiago and Homa District Education officer William Okumu.
Mutula also dissolved the school board to restore compliance and respect of ministry rules. “I have also written to the Teachers Service Commission to take disciplinary action against head teacher and TSC county director,” he said. This is not the first time pupils have been burnt to death because their dormitories were locked. In 1998,?some 26 teenage girls were charred in Bombolulu Secondary School near Mazeras when their dormitory caught fire.
Reports then indicated that one of the two doors was locked on the outside and all ten windows had grills. A similar case was recorded in 2002, when another 67 boys died in a dormitory at Kyanguli High School.
The safety guidelines signed by Education Minister and then PS, says boarding school dormitories should never be locked when students are inside. It further says that the dormitory master or mistress or the dormitory prefect should always keep keys to the doors. The Safety Standards Manual says these dormitories should have a door at each end and an additional emergency exit in the middle, clearly labeled “Emergency Exit”.
“All the doorways should be wide enough, at least five feet wide, and they should open outwards,” said the minister. Mutula said the required design of the dormitory windows must be without grills, and should be easy to open.
The guidelines also spell out the correct spacing between the beds to be at least 1.2m, while the corridor or pathway space should not be less than two metres.
Speaking to the Press on Friday, Mutula said he is disappointed that most schools have not complied with the Safety Standards Manual for schools four years after they were developed. “For the few months I have been at this ministry and with the visits I have made in these schools, I have realised these facilities are deathtraps,” he said.
He added: “I am now ordering an immediate compliance with these guidelines with immediate effect. According to the guidelines, admissions to these halls of residence should be to bed capacity. Sharing of beds is prohibited.
“In observing care of the halls, fire-extinguishing equipment should be regularly checked to ascertain if they are functioning, and that they should be placed at each exit with fire alarms fitted at easily accessible points,” read the guidelines in part.
A check by The Standard revealed that no boarding facility fully complied with the safety regulations. Some of the dormitories either had one door as opposed to the two or also had grilled windows.
Mutula said the ministry recommends that the boarding schools, dormitories must be kept clean and properly ventilated. He said no regular checks by the teachers and the administration need to be undertaken before learners retire to bed as the regulations demand.
The guidelines also demand that an accurate roll call should be taken every day and records maintained.
“There should be regular patrols by the school security personnel or any other authorised security personnel. No visitor should be allowed in the dormitory.”
By Augustine Oduor and James Omoro, The Standard
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