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Ideas & Debate

How Alliance alumni idea can transform schools across Kenya

Alliance High School
Alliance High School. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The government's directive on 100 per cent transition from primary school has created a new challenge for secondary schools and their boards of management (BoMs): They have to admit more students although their resources are limited.

That means teachers have to handle more students per class, and that facilities are stretched. Because there is a limit to how much they can charge students, and bearing in mind that capitation per student is determined even before the school calendar opens, there is little that headteachers and BoMs can do to raise money from parents through fees. The result is that in many schools, students are learning under less than ideal conditions.

This scenario got two captains of industry thinking. Is there a way, they asked, that the alumni of various schools can come together and give back to the schools where their education and career journies started? This is the question that set Joseph Ogutu, the the Safaricom’s director of strategy and innovation and chairman of the Safaricom Foundation, and Edwin Macharia — the partner and Africa regional director of Dalberg Advisors — on a journey that might just inspire other alumni associations to do something to improve the quality of education across the country.

Both Mr Ogutu and Mr Macharia attended Alliance High School, one of the leading national secondary schools for boys. Mr Macharia later went to Amherst College in the US for his undergraduate studies while Mr Ogutu attended the Aston Management School in Birmingham, in the UK, for his postgraduate studies after obtaining a first degree from the University of Nairobi.

In the US, like much of Europe, the culture of alumni making donations to the learning institutions they attended is well developed and universities have endowments funds, infrastructure and academic programmes supported financially by former students. Seeing this culture at work has inspired the two to try something similar at home.

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"Historically and globally, alumni have played a critical role in supporting the development of the institutions that they came from," said Mr Ogutu, who left Alliance in 1975.

In the 1970s, Alliance High School used to admit about 400 students. This number rose to about 600 in the 1980s and 1990s, when Mr Ogutu and Mr Macharia were students there. It has since grown to 1,800, and the principal, William Mwangi, projects that this will get to 4,500 in the near future.

The high number of learners has not only strained the educational infrastructure but also amenities like the school chapel.

Alliance High School was founded in 1926 by four protestant churches; The Church of Scotland Mission — later known as the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), the Church of the Province of Kenya (now the Anglican Church of Kenya), the Africa Inland Church (AIC) and the Methodist Church. This explains why the chapel is a significant part of the school.

The school has faced both financial and infrastructural challenges considering that only about 30 per cent of the students come from families that can afford to pay the full fees. The other 70 benefit from scholarships of varying amounts.

"An Alliance student today has a very different experience from the one I had just because the school is not what it was," Mr Macharia said. "They can't enjoy the facilities that we were able to enjoy because of the expansion they have had."

When he and other members of the Class of 95 had their 20th re-union in 2015, they started asking what they could do to give back to the school that had impacted their lives in such a big way. That is how they settled on expanding the chapel because as students they had to go there every morning. Because of this, the chapel became a central feature of their lives as students and the first project they wanted to embark on when they decided it was time to do something for their school so that it could continue to play its role in serving the country.

Mr Mwangi said the school’s BoM welcomed the idea of building the new chapel because the government does not fund such projects. The old boys then started looking for their colleagues to raise funds for the project.

At one point, a journalist asked Mr Ogutu: "If Carrey Francis, who was an important teacher and principal at Alliance, were to rise from his grave today, what would he ask of you as old boys?"

This question opened his eyes to the possibilities of what he could do for the school at a personal level. So when the idea of building the new chapel was floated to him, he became among the first 100 people to get on board. The school has over 11,000 former students.

Because it is not possible to extend the current chapel, the team settled on building a new one that can also serve as a multi-purpose hall with an amphitheatre and other amenities at a cost of Sh200 million.

The money will be raised through various initiatives, including having each alumnus buy a brick on which his admission number will be inscribed. It is expected that the project will take two years and money left over will go into an endowment fund to ensure that the facility is kept in tiptop shape over the next 50 years.

If the idea is good for Alliance, it must be good for other schools too.

As Mr Ogutu put it, "the message we would like to send across is that old boys and old girls retain a responsibility to see the institutions they went to continue to grow".

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