Where did things go wrong?

Where are they? This is a question often asked to establish the whereabouts of celebrities who have vanished from the public radar.

I guess it is an appropriate question that can be applied in the context of the place of boarding public schools in our ever changing education landscape. Undoubtedly, boarding schools used to occupy a special place in the hearts of many parents and students.

Where did things go wrong? Where are the boarding schools in this present climate of academic under achievement? Digging deep into the distant past, the annals of history would present an interesting scenario where almost all boarding schools earned the tag of existing as bastions of academic excellence. They were few in number but their presence was profoundly felt.

The geographical locations of the schools did not really matter. No barrier was sufficient enough to stand in the way of their academic achievement. The boarding schools one has in mind scattered around the country in various locations from the rugged mountains and hills of Kgale, Baratani, Tswapong, the Kgalagadi sands and in the towns.

Those schools were fully alive to their purpose of existence and performed worthy of themselves. To enumerate a few of those schools which held their own are the likes of St Josephs on the door step of the capital city, Matsha College in the semi desert of Kgalagadi and Moeng College sitting in the Tswapong hills, Gaborone Senior Secondary School in the heart of the capital and Matshekge Hill School in the then least developed village of Bobonong.

All the schools had a common denominator, which was living to expectations and maintaining a high performing culture. Judging by their impeccable academic records, there is no doubt about the wisdom behind the idea of establishing and running boarding schools. For all intents and purposes, a boarding school was created to create an ideal environment for teaching and learning.

Apart from giving students and teachers the serenity and tranquillity that a learning institution requires, boarding schools were considered and perceived as safe havens for students. In spite of the presence of mild and sporadic instances of ill-treatment and humiliation that new students were subjected to, resident students by and large experienced a high degree of peaceful coexistence and harmonious relations. If need be, the boarding personnel were always ready to provide security against bullies and offer their shoulders for vulnerable students to lean on.

The atmosphere of a home away from home prevailed in the boarding school setting. What is more, the school boarding status insulated students from the trouble and inconveniences of bearing the costs of commuting from their homes to school on a daily basis. Equally served well were the students from less fortunate backgrounds. This is because the school feeding programme was to some extent a social safety net which insulated children from abject poverty they would be subjected to while living off campus.

It could be said that a boarding schools acted as equalising agents as they had the effect of creating some semblance of equality among children regardless of the economic status of their families. Cushioned against poverty, it was relatively easy for students to bring their best selves to the classroom. Of course, it is not the intention of this column to romanticise life in boarding schools. Just like day schools, boarding schools had their fair share of troubles. Some schools were prone to strikes and skirmishes between the management and students.

Usually student strikes were triggered off by issues of food and the quality of service in the kitchen. It was very rare for students to raise issues over matters of quality instruction in the classroom. Whenever they occurred, student strikes temporarily disrupted the teaching and learning programme. It was a rarity, however, for schools to experience prolonged and protracted skirmishes which could impact adversely on student learning outcomes. Strikes usually lasted for a day or two. By and large, the boarding school environment supported the development and nurturing of a high achieving culture. To the uninitiated, the common distinctive characteristic features of a typical boarding school were high expectations of students and teachers, positive teacher and student attitudes, order and discipline, frequent homework, student feedback, high time in school and high time in learning. Having students isolated from the community gave them more focus on the business of teaching and learning.

Thanks to the boarding school set up many students were able to run the race to the end. Problems of alcohol consumption, drug abuse, desertions and dropping out school mainly on account of pregnancy which dog present day schools were hardly present. Even though boarding schools appeared to be providing an ideal climate for teaching and learning, many of them with the passage faded away.

There is no clear cut reason and justification as to why boarding schools, which served students well, started shrinking in numbers to a point where day schools gained currency and popularity at the expense of boarding schools. However, it would appear the agenda of increasing education opportunities to all eligible learners must have been the main driving force behind the conversion of many boarding schools into day schools.

The demand for increased educational opportunities could not be met without a corresponding increase in facilities. Instead of building additional facilities, it became a little more convenient and cost effective to convert existing hostel buildings into teaching stations. Urbanisation too resulted in mass movement of working communities from the villages to the towns and this demographic change made it easier for children to commute from their homes. The rise in the numbers of day schools brought about a new phenomenon which was unknown.

The fortunes of the boarding schools changed drastically. Save for schools like Masunga Senior Secondary School and Mahupu Unified Secondary schools, which can claim to be the surviving bastions of academic excellence, many boarding schools are struggling to put their heads above water.

One wonders why the current boarding schools do not seem to exploit the advantages which placed their yesteryear counterparts head and shoulders above the rest. There is an urgent need to look into the issue of boarding schools to establish the identity of problems which undermine provision of quality education. Otherwise one looks back with nostalgia to the past glory days when a boarding school was the bulwark of academic achievement. Boarding schools have contributed generously not only to the country’s human resource development but also to nation building because they brought together students from diverse tribal backgrounds. They cannot be allowed to vanish from the scene and efforts should be made to redeem them.

Editor's Comment
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