A Discussion with John Kitala, National Education Secretary for the African Inland Church, Kenya
April 9, 2015
Background: Both the historical and present-day systems of education in Kenya are inextricably tied to churches. With around four million members, the Africa Inland Church (AIC) is a prime example. John Kitala, national education secretary for the AIC, met with Elisabeth Stoddard in Nairobi on April 9, 2015 to discuss AIC’s history and role in the education sector. He describes the history, the system of school construction and sponsorship (which involves over 3,500 schools), and the current challenges the church faces. Specifically, he is concerned about recent government legislation that aims to limit a church's involvement in the schools it sponsors. He reflects on the difficulties Kenya must overcome to improve its education system and how the church plays a crucial role in expanding access to education and ensuring schools are held to high standards.
Can you describe the history of the Africa Inland Church (AIC) in Kenya?
The AIC was started by missionaries from the U.S. in 1895. Peter Cameron Scott led the first group of missionaries to Kenya at this time and created the Africa Inland Mission (AIM) which today is based in Bristol Great Britain.
AIM’s role was to facilitate the recruitment and movement of missionaries to Africa. But, in the early days of the church, a lot of the missionaries died because they were not prepared for the climatic conditions in Africa. After 20 years of very little growth, AIM began to expand through church planting.
In 1928, the missionaries started a Bible school in order to train young Kenyan pastors in the AIM ministry. This Bible school is now our private university, Scott Christian University. Those new Kenyan pastors went back to the home regions and planted one church after another. The church began to grow very fast.
By 1945, the missionaries realized that the church was growing so rapidly that there was now a need to separate the church from the mission. So, around 1948 they began calling the churches the Africa Inland Church and the mission remained AIM.
Now the church is much larger than the mission. AIC has around four million members in Kenya today. We have 15 bishops throughout the country and a national office here in Nairobi. We also have about 20 Bible schools and we continue to grow!
How did you come to work at the African Inland Church (AIC)?
I’ve worked in this AIC Office for the last 30 years. I started as the national music coordinator back in 1985. My main tasks were to organize seminars and events for church musicians to help them develop their musical talents. In 1998 I was appointed the national education secretary under the AIC’s department of education.
Our main goal in the education department is to oversee the running of our private and public schools in Kenya. Here in Kenya, we have what we call ‘sponsorship’ of schools. Before independence, the churches ran the vast majority of schools. When the new national government was forming, they needed to start a public education system but did not have the time or resources to start from scratch. They appealed to the churches and the churches handed over their schools to the government so a public system could begin.
Now the churches maintain a ‘sponsorship’ role for these public schools that were nationalized after independence. This role does not imply any financial support, but rather gives the churches mechanisms by which they can oversee the development and success of the schools, including spiritual development of the students.
Why is education so connected to the churches in Kenya?
When traveling around this country you will find that apart from the towns and cities, in the rural areas, wherever there is a church, there will be a school next to that church, and that is what sponsorship is all about.
White missionaries who started our church saw the need to educate our people so that they can read the Bible for themselves. So wherever they planted a church, they also planted a school. This culture has continued until today. Being a sponsor really means that we founded this school.
Now, the pre-independence schools are public and run by the government who send teachers, maintain the curriculum, and provide teaching materials. But the church, as the sponsor, offers spiritual guidance to the students and teachers. As sponsors, we have a few privileges; we are consulted when head teachers are being appointed and we also have a larger share in the membership of the school boards.
How many schools do you sponsor here in Kenya?
The number keeps growing but roughly we sponsor about 500 secondary schools and over 3,000 primary schools. Roughly, less than 100 of those schools were started by missionaries. Then around the 1940s, because of evangelization, the Kenyans themselves began joining the church and starting new schools. Since then, both AIC churches and schools have continued to grow.
Are the new schools founded by the church considered public or private?
We start a few of them as private schools depending on circumstances. There are areas where a community cannot develop a school. They do not have the resources. If we let them initiate the construction, the school will never be there.
So with the help of some donors, we put up a school, run it privately for some time, and when the community begins to see the need for education, then we transition the school into the public system. The reason we transition it is because we cannot afford to maintain the teachers’ salaries and school upkeep long-term.
In most cases, the community is ready and willing to help create a school. They want schools for their children. The community, therefore, pools its resources and works together to build a school. This is called the harambee system. The structures are very poor initially, but out of that beginning, the school develops and grows with the community.
Do you help the communities register the new school with the government?
Yes, we help them to get registered. We typically register a school after it has been running for about three or four years. Once it gets registered, then it is the role of the government to supply teachers and support the school.
What is the process to register a school with the government?
Well, it is a long process. First of all, the school has to be there. The community has to have some structures in place. The process begins with the Ministry of Health who sends public health officers to come and inspect the existing facilities. They need to confirm that the structures are habitable and don’t pose any health threats to the students. Proper sanitation facilities, like pit latrines, are crucial to passing inspection.
Another thing they look for is the viability of the location of the school. Sometimes in Kenya, floods will come only every 20 years. The community might not know about this danger. The public health officers have to consider all scenarios during their review.
Once the Ministry of Health approves, the Ministry of Education officers come to inspect the school. They need to be assured that we are already teaching the approved curriculum and that the teachers are qualified. And then, once this approval is given, we fill out the final application forms. It is in these forms that the church becomes the official ‘sponsor’ of the school. Sponsorship cannot be transferred. A community cannot decide—the AIC has been here for too long, we want the school to become Catholic or otherwise. They can’t make that decision. Whoever initiates the school remains the sponsor.
There will also be approval by the local government and the local education boards. They will also give their approval that yes we need a school in that locality. That application is now taken to the Ministry of Education headquarters and once it has all the approvals, within a period of like six months the school will be duly registered, a certificate issued, and once the Teachers Service Commission receive a copy of that certificate they have a duty to deploy teachers.
How long does this whole process take, all the approvals and inspections?
That process would take about a year. Sometimes the public health officers declare that the sanitary facilities are not up to code and they may require new latrines be constructed.
Or sometimes they will find people have just dug a pit and put pieces of wood across it, and cover them with soil. The officers will never approve that. This wood may decay and it can collapse while children are inside, so they will never approve that. So they will come to the community and say in order to get approval you must dig other pit and have a concrete slab that is safe. But if everything is done correctly from the beginning the registration process will be done before the year is ended.
In what areas of the country are AIC schools found?
Actually we have schools in every county of Kenya, but the majority of our schools are in the eastern region, central Kenya, Rift Valley, and around Lake Victoria.
Why are the schools more heavily concentrated in those areas?
Those areas are where the missionaries were most concentrated. It is interesting to note when the missionaries came, they arrived through the coast, but they ignored it. In fact where we have the fewest schools is along the coast.
Why did they ignore the coastal region?
The communities were not open to Christianity. They were very bound to their own traditions and secure in their Muslim faith. The missionaries were not successful, for the most part, along the coast.
The 2013 Education Act was rather controversial because it changed some of the laws surrounding the ‘sponsorship’ role of churches in schools. Is the AIC in the process of appealing parts of the act?
Yes, there are things we are not happy about. For example, we have been petitioning the government to recognize the need for chaplains in boarding schools. Ideally, the school board would hire a chaplain and pay him with the school budget. But, currently the Education Act makes it the sponsoring church’s responsibility to hire and pay any school chaplain. Since this is now law, any school that uses general funds to hire a chaplain is vulnerable to legal actions.
The act has also reduced the number of board members that the sponsors may appoint for the school. Previously, the sponsor was allowed to appoint four of the 13 school board members. Now, the sponsor can only choose three members.
Also, the act revoked the right of the sponsor to have a hand in the appointment of the school head. When the sponsor could help choose, the school head always knew that there was someone watching. If the head was not adequately serving the school, the sponsor could go to the Ministry of Education and have the head removed.
Since our role has been diminished, school heads have become arrogant and run the schools with no accountability, sometimes even misusing funds. Corruption is a real problem. Our voice has been stifled and the effects are already being experienced.
The government has also banned the national ranking of schools. Why are the churches opposed to this?
One thing we know very well is that the church-sponsored schools lead the nation in exam scores. All the top schools in Kenya are the ones where the church is either the sponsor (public schools) or sole proprietor (private schools).
We are not happy about the ranking ban. It will negatively affect the quality of education in the country. A lot of teachers and students will relax, because if they perform poorly, nobody will know.
Do their exam scores still affect their ability to get into secondary school, or college?
Yes, but it becomes very difficult to hold schools to high standards. Individual students’ scores can be known, but performance of the school overall is much harder to determine without the national ranking. Schools lose some of their incentive to provide high quality education to their students. Schools are no longer held accountable.
Does AIC sponsor other levels of educational institutions like universities or preschools?
We have a private university called Scott Christian University. It started as a theological college but has been expanded to offer a full range of programs. Every one of our primary schools has a kindergarten class. That is now required by law. In areas where we do not sponsor any schools, we also have kindergartens in the local AIC churches. Almost every one of our churches has a kindergarten program.
What makes church-sponsored schools outperform secular schools?
The moral values and discipline which is instilled in the children through our teachers and administrators. Most of our staff are Christians and they want to apply these values in their teaching and help the students become well-rounded and whole adults.
Religious education classes are mandated by the national curriculum so in our schools we teach Christian Religious Education (CRE). At the end of every CRE lesson, the teacher will engage the students in discussions and activities to help reaffirm the values of the lessons. These practical components are not required, but our teachers believe they are crucial to a holistic education.
Also, every week the students participate in a pastoral program of instruction (PPI). During this time, one of our pastors comes to the school to have a conversation with the student body. PPI is also a part of the national curriculum for primary schools. In secondary, we end school on Friday with a multi-faith devotion. The Christian children all go to one room where they meet with a pastor and Muslim students and those of other faiths have a room as well. As a church-sponsored school, we will not invite an imam or other religious leader to come for devotions. But, the students can worship on their own.
Do your schools have a lot of Muslim students?
Not very many, but almost every one of our schools has a small number of Muslim students. During the admission process, we ask the parents to acknowledge that they are bringing their child to a Christian school where Islamic studies are not taught and the Muslim faith not practiced. If they are not comfortable with that, they are welcome to go to another school.
It’s interesting to note that some Muslim parents will deliberately want to bring their children to Christian schools. As I said before, the church-affiliated schools are often of better quality than the secular schools. The parents want their children to have the best opportunities to progress, so they bring them to the Christian schools.
Do the Muslim students have problems in the Christian Religious Education classes?
Not at all. Many Muslim students choose to take CRE classes up to the exam level and in most cases they outperform the Christian students. We like interviewing them once they have matured and they say they took CRE classes because they wanted to compare Christianity with Islam. They are curious about the history of Christianity and its beliefs. They want to know, what Christianity is all about!
If Muslim girls are enrolled in AIC schools do they wear their hijab, or do they have to take it off?
This has been a big debate. We do not allow girls to wear the veils in school. We tell parents from the very beginning that every student needs to wear the prescribed school uniform. When the girls enter the school, they remove the veils and put on the uniform. At the end of the day, they change again and go home.
Are the parents okay with their daughters not wearing the hijab in school?
Yes, because they want their daughter to get a quality education. This is a big debate especially in the large tows like Nairobi that may have 100 Muslim girls in one school.
The Ministry of Education has been fighting for the girls to be allowed to wear the hijabs in school. But, our argument is that the ministry is contradicting itself because they were the ones who introduced school uniforms nationwide. It has been a big debate, and it has not been resolved yet.
Is this something that a lot of the other church-sponsored schools deal with?
Yes. Sometimes we have court cases where a Muslim parent insists that his daughter be allowed to exercise her religious freedom by wearing the hijab in school. Usually they lose, because our schools are very transparent that students have to wear the school uniform and the parents agree to this when they enroll their children. If they do not agree with the policy, they can go to a different school. But if the parents enroll the students and sign off on the policy and then change their minds, they have little chance of winning in court. The enrollment conditions are very clear.
How does the school enrollment process work? Can all children choose which school they wish to attend?
When the students take their national exams, they also select their choices for schools so if their scores align with the school’s requirements, they are admitted. In some cases a student who is from northeastern Kenya will be admitted to a school in Rift Valley, but the parents don’t feel comfortable sending the child so far away so they decide to decline. In these cases, parents can request a position for their child in a local school. If the school has open spaces and the student is qualified, they can switch schools. So, there are opportunities to choose.
What do you see as the biggest challenges to education in Kenya?
It’s a big question. One of the challenges is poverty, because we talk about free primary and secondary education, but in reality it is not free. The funds that the government is giving to schools cannot sustain a school. So indirectly the parents find themselves paying some fee both to get school supplies for their kids and to actually fund the school. It is very common for parents to actually pay salaries for some teachers because the number of teachers the government provides is not enough.
Secondary schooling is very expensive because, although tuition is free, most secondary schools are boarding. For room and board, parents have to pay sometimes 52,000 shillings per year (about $550). This is a lot of money to a lot of Kenyans. The only students who truly enjoy free education are those who attend day schools, which are very few. And even in those day schools, parents have to pay fees for uniforms and school supplies. Poverty is a big challenge.
Another challenge is that all the children in Kenya are being taught the same curriculum and subjected to the same tests. For children that live in underdeveloped areas like northeastern, these conditions are not conducive to learning. Some places in Kenya can be extremely hot in the afternoon. So much so that children cannot sit in the school buildings. The children, then, end up only coming to school for the morning. They go home in the afternoon because it’s too hot. At the end of the year, every child has to take the same exams, but a lot of students are not equipped to do well on the tests. So, these underdeveloped regions continue lagging behind whether they like it or not. We need a new curriculum and new strategies to help these regions improve.
Another challenge is failure by the government to meet its obligations. For example, there has been a perennial shortage of teachers in the country. Parents are forced to hire extra teachers. You will find that in a primary school that runs grades one through eight, there are only four government teachers. The parents will now have to pay money to hire the extra four teachers, even in the high schools. You’ll find that every high school has a group of teachers who are being paid from parents’ pockets. And here the government is talking of free education.
Now another challenge is having suitable study environments for children. Because of poverty, some school buildings are in terrible condition. The quality of school infrastructure really contributes to how students learn. We need to invest in our country’s schools in order to improve the education system.