Starehe is a school – or rather, since 2005 when the girls’ centre opened – a pair of schools run according to the philosophy of Geoffrey Griffin, the son of a British policeman. In 1959, when many boys were made homeless and destitute by the Mau Mau insurgency, Griffin offered them a refuge and an education. Fifty years ago he developed a system based on “my school; my responsibility” and resisted all change until his death in 2005. “It’s like opening a time capsule, seeing a school frozen in time, but it works,” says Martin Philpott, deputy head of Cliff Park High, near Great Yarmouth, who visited with 75 Norfolk teenagers.
Almost all students at Starehe are grindingly poor but also exceptionally bright. After visiting their ill-equipped classrooms and sharing their meals of ugali (maize porridge), the Norfolk students felt not pity but admiration. “In Kenya they realise that the teachers are there for their benefit and make the most of the relationship,” says Holly Drew, 16.
Much of what they saw should have been risible. No one in Britain now would start the school day with bugle calls and saluting. Nor would young men of 18 be content to wear shorts. But behind those trappings of tradition lies a modern way of running a school which Norfolk schools – and others – are beginning to adopt. The effects are so remarkable that Cherry Crowley resigned the headship of Flegg High last summer to spread Starehe practice throughout this country. “I liked the ideas of duty and service,” she says, “and of students managing their own school.”
A school like Starehe might be expected to operate cane and slipper discipline to match the old-fashioned desks and blackboards. The opposite is true. The pupils run the school. From 6am they clean before assembly. After lessons finish there are no teachers about so they handle security, supervise prep and dole out punishments. If someone objects, they have to take the punishment first, but can challenge it later.
This uniquely democratic system arose from necessity. Scraping together the funds to feed and teach Starehe’s pupils is hard enough without having to pay for cleaners or guards. Once in place, it was obvious that the system worked. “Whenever some disaster occurs in Kenya,” says Old-Starehean James Otieno, who is visiting the Norfolk schools, “a Starehean always takes charge. They are used to responsibility. They don’t need work experience because they have been running the school.”
The centrepiece of the Starehean way is the “baraza”, a pupil parliament where anyone can speak and teachers can be called to account. On their visit to Kenya, the British children watched a member of the first form stand up and stammer in front of the 1,000-strong boys’ school. “I r-r-really w-w-wish,” he began, as he explained how unfair it was he was laughed at for his disability. “By the end of his speech, everyone was on his side,” says Crowley.
Cliff Park has instituted the baraza system. Unlike a school council, members are not chosen. Anyone can attend and speak at baraza, providing they focus on issues, not individuals, and speak politely. Today’s is about international links – a priority in monocultural Norfolk. I watch as they request European links to add to those they already have with Kenya and Japan. Teachers promise to take action.
“When you know a school isn’t ignoring you, you feel obliged to respect the school back,” participants explain afterwards.
“We have learnt from Starehe that if you leave children to manage their own affairs, they are capable of far more than we imagine,” says Philpott.
At Flegg they haven’t adopted the baraza but have learnt from the Starehe principle that everyone can be a leader, but prefect status must be earned. “Now you can’t get the tie or badge unless you are giving the teachers no grief,” says Mike Ward, deputy head of Flegg High.
“I didn’t get made prefect first time,” says Holly Drew, once a rebel. “After that, I did everything in my power – everything – to make sure it came my way. When I went to Starehe I thought how lucky I was to have a wardrobe full of clothes. I came back thinking how they have much more than we have because they are always happy and smiling.”
By Cassandra Jardine