A Voice for Private School Teachers

Published on 18th April 2006

Silas D. Obuhatsa
Many Private Schools in Kenya are not aware that a Private Schools’ Union exists to address their needs. The African Executive caught up with Mr. Silas D. Obuhatsa, Secretary General of Kenya National Union of Private Schools Teachers (KNUPST) in the Union’s office at Krishna Mansion, in the heart of Nairobi.


Q. What is your Union out to do?

A. KNUPST is keen on ensuring that teachers in Private schools execute their duties professionally and excellently to raise the academic standards of the nation. On the other hand, we see to it that their employers treat them well and provide a conducive environment for them to excel.

On a wider front, KNUPST is concerned that teachers in private schools are marginalized in such important matters as national curriculum development and the setting of national exams. We are out to ensure that this gap is bridged.

Q. From your experience, what is the plight of teachers in Private schools?

A. Their plight varies from one institution to the other. The Union is however concerned that most teachers work overtime, but they are not paid. Some are not allowed to break for holidays and even during this time, they are not paid. During the last referendum voting on constitution review, I was shocked to learn that some private school management never allowed their staff to go and vote. I think this is stretching teachers too far. They may be desperate for pay yes, but they should be treated humanely!

Q. What are some of the grievances that teachers have brought to your office?

A. On being given teaching posts, most of them are not furnished with appointment letters stating the terms and conditions of service. The employers do this in order to fire them at will and escape the consequences. These letters are vital. They are part of a teacher’s C.V. If another station asks him about the teaching experience, how else would he prove?

On the issue of salary, most teachers are paid peanuts. The school’s management should put itself in the shoes of the teacher. How do you pay somebody Ksh. 1,000 per month with the current living standards? How will the individual pay rent and feed the family from this? Housing and medical allowances are unheard of in most schools!

Most schools don’t raise their teachers pay. Somebody works for ten years in a school but still gets the same pay. This shows lack of growth. To make matters worse, employers deduct National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) and National Social Security Fund (NSSF) from this money-but the deductions are never remitted to the relevant authorities.

Q. Any other concerns?

A. In some schools a lady teacher being expectant leads to outright dismissal. How shall the pupil population in the schools increase if giving birth is curtailed? This is gross abuse of human rights.

I came across a school where students were quite unruly. The management was blaming this on teachers but on inquiry, I discovered that the staff was not allowed to discipline the pupils, for fear of losing the income base. In that school, pupils had more power than their teachers. How does somebody work in such an environment where the management sows seeds of animosity between the learner and teacher?

Q. What is the way forward?

A. To begin with, private school owners need training on management. A school is a business, and sound business principles have to be applied to reap profit on the side of teachers, pupils, parents and the school management.

Private school owners should employ professionals to help them run their schools. I’ve come across schools run by nurses and cooks who have no experience at all in school management; yet, they are at the centre of school activity. I don’t despise their entrepreneurial prowess, but they can add value to it by adding professional advise.

School owners ought to encourage upward mobility in their staff by giving them time to attend educational seminars, and refresher courses. They should understand teachers’ needs and appropriately motivate them. They should also understand teachers are social beings hence they need participation in the democratic process.

Q. Can we go to something else?

A. When I was the Head in a certain Private school, my employer send me to attend a Kenya Private Schools Owners Association (KPSA)  meeting. What I witnessed was shocking. One official stood up and asked the rest:

“Who among you is paying teachers a Ksh. 20,000 salary?” 

No hand was raised. 

“Ksh. 10,000?”  

Three hands. The rest fell between Ksh. 4,000 and 8,000.

“You people who are paying your teachers Ksh. 10,000 are the ones making teachers to run away from our schools,” he said.

It was resolved that a specific level of payment be set to avoid movement of teachers from the schools. Does this reflect the interest of teachers?

Q. I have personally encountered schools that would wish to pay their teachers the Kshs 4000 that you mentioned, yet they do not have the ability to do so. Should they shut down?

A. Not really! We have various levels of private schools: those that serve high-income earners; those that serve middle-income earners and finally, ones that serve the low resource families. My concern is about schools that have the means to remunerate their staff well yet they deliberately choose not to. I know of some schools aided by NGOs to pay their teachers yet this money never trickles down to them! On the other hand, a school should not just sit down and cry: I am unable! I am Unable! They should make a concerted effort to exit their predicament!

Q. What is the relationship between your Union and KPSA?

A. The Union recognizes their importantance in achieving the “Education for All” goal by 2015. The owners are however critical of KNUPST. Most of them have warned their teachers against joining the Union, threatening them with sacking. How can they do that bearing in mind that they (the owners) are members of other Unions? KNUPST is just bridging the relationship between them and their teachers. Is advocating for better terms of service and conditions for working a crime?

Q. What is your call to the government?

A. It should be interested in private schools. Why should donors bring money to fund schools only for the money to end up in Public schools only? Aren’t Private schools supplementing the government’s effort to provide education?

This money should trickle down to Private schools in form of loans to improve the school’s infrastructure, bursaries and vouchers for parents to have a choice on where their pupils can learn.

The government should also consider setting aside portions of land for Private school “edupreneurs” and waive taxes on educational material and school oriented equipment. The schools should be given equal opportunity in inspection, setting of exams and student selection. 

Q. Are government laws Pro-Union?

A. Partially yes. But there is an old law which states that for a Union to address disputes in a school, 51% of the teachers in the school must be members of the Union. This law is obsolete. As long as a teacher is in private school, he should have a right of representation.

Q. How do you settle disputes?

A. We talk to the employers. If the case is complex we forward it to the District Labor Officer who can forward it to the Provincial Labor Officer or the Minister. In many cases the Labor office takes too long to act. Some teachers, in Talent Academy (Nairobi) for example, were unjustly sacked in November 2005 but when the matter was forwarded to the Labor office as the law requires, the employer was summoned but refused to attend. Since then, the office has not followed up the issue despite our reminders. This does not send positive signals. The same happened in Gilgil Hills Academy. This makes teachers to suffer, the Union to be blamed and injustice to prevail. 

Q. What’s your relationship with other Trade Unions? 

A. Three education Trade Unions exist: Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET) and KNUPST, which is the youngest. KNUSPT relates well with KUPPET but KNUT undermines the two. We are however setting mechanisms for dialogue.

Q. A message to teachers and employers? 

A. KNUPST is available to address your needs. Don’t be intimidated. Being a union member is your right. Union membership fee is only Ksh. 200. Of this Ksh. 50 goes to the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU). Don’t suffer silently, speak to us. Maintain high standards of discipline, even if you are underpaid, don’t shortchange the learners. Private school teachers should unite and form their own cooperative. Through this, they will be able to access loans and handle emergencies without strain. 

Employers should add value to their schools. This will increase income and translate to better pay for teachers and improved infrastructure. They can do this by paying teachers through the banks. This will give the teachers an opportunity to access loans. 

All in all, education standards will rise if the school owner, teacher, pupil and parent play their role effectively under a conducive environment provided by the government.

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