Inside Kenya’s trendiest and most expensive school

The classroom looks like a computer lab. Only that it is eight-year-olds busy on the laptops and iPads as the teacher introduces today’s lesson. It is history for Year 4 pupils.

In an ordinary Kenyan school, one would find them crowding their heads on a dog-eared book that has seen better days. The lesson would probably be about the origins of “our” people, phenomena and what to find in the school’s environment.

Not in this school in Nairobi’s Karen neighbourhood. Here, each of the pupils is glued to a laptop or iPad with Wi-Fi connection.

Their teacher, Ms Rachel Cain, is also working on a laptop. Everyone is tech-savvy at Kenya’s trendiest and most expensive school, the GEMS Cambridge International School. It is arguably Nairobi’s newest school, being only three months old.

In the history class, Ms Cain is teaching her pupils how to create historical timelines. She asks each of them to choose a favourite musician. They are then to search on the Internet and create a timeline of events that define the musician’s career.

“As you can see,” Ms Cain explains, pointing at one of the pupils, “this one is dealing with Michael Jackson. The idea is for them to get creative.”

The pupils trawl the web collecting details and arranging them in a chronological order. No fuss. Everything goes on seamlessly.

The scenario is similar in a separate classroom, where another “social studies” lesson is on-going. Each of the pupils has been assigned a topic such as murder, rape and drug abuse to research on. They are using iPads to obtain information from the Internet on the topics of their choice.

When the information is gathered each will create a PowerPoint document on their laptops and use the projector available in the classroom to make a presentation to the rest of the class.

“They are using the iPads to get pictures and videos on these topics and transfer them to the laptop for final presentation,” explains Hannington Mauka, the subject teacher.

This is the trend at the GEMS Cambridge International School, which opened its doors in September this year. The British-system school offers the Cambridge school examinations.

Sitting on 17 acres off Magadi Road in the Karen suburbs, it cost the management Sh3 billion ($35 million) to put up the campus and install all the learning facilities.

The construction lasted just six months between February and August this year.

In its three months of operation, the school, which has a capacity of 1,080, has admitted 70 pupils of 15 nationalities.

A look at the school and the amenities shows not only quality but also affluence.

One of the managers aptly describes it as a home away from home for the pupils.

It is not a school for the children of the average wage earner. It would cost a cool Sh22 million to take a child through the school from the foundation stage (FS) 1 to Year 13. And you won’t even be done with the secondary education.

Under the British system, one needs to study up to Year 18 before going to university.

Mr Raminder Vig, the director of GEMS Africa and the chief academic officer at the school, says they will introduce the remaining five classes from next year.

In Years 12 and 13, the annual fees is Sh1.9 million, tuition being Sh1.2 million and boarding fees Sh700,000.

Between Year 7 and 11, the annual fees is Sh1.7 million, tuition accounting for Sh1.1 million.

The annual fees for Years 3 to 6 is Sh1.6 million, Sh1 million being tuition fees.

Boarding services are not provided to pupils in Year 2 and below, meaning the charges are lower: Sh882,700 for Year 2, Sh646,100 for Year 1 and Sh509,600 and Sh464,100 for FS 2 and FS 1 respectively.

But, even before paying the fees, a parent parts with a non-refundable fee of Sh8,595 ($100) for registration and another Sh42,975 ($500) as non-refundable admission fee.

Registration is done online and, according to the school’s website, “registration does not guarantee your child a place”.

A tour of the school compound and inside the facilities gives one a feel of quality and finesse.

Even with high temperatures, one is welcomed by a cool breeze at a spacious reception with glass doors that opens into an open field.

The imported seats and tables dotting the area underline the ambience at the front office.

Walking along the corridors, you are treated to brightly coloured paintings and murals. Most of these are done by the pupils.

In the classrooms, pupils as young as three years learn using tablets, laptops and projectors. An iPad costs between Sh67,000 (16GB) and Sh87,000 (64GB) while a new laptop costs an average of Sh50,000. The pupils do not share these gadgets during class time. There are enough to go round.

The pupils learn for 30 hours per week, or six hours per day.

There are no dusty blackboards, chalk and dusters. The teachers use interactive whiteboards. By last year, 20 per cent of schools in the UK did not have interactive whiteboards.

A projector beams the computer’s desktop onto the board’s surface where pupils control the computer using a pen, finger, stylus, or other devices.

They can also capture and save notes written on a whiteboard to their personal computers. They also take notes written on a graphics tablet to the whiteboard.

The pupils control their PCs from the whiteboard using “click and drag” markup.

The whiteboard also has an audience response system, where pupils making a presentation can poll a classroom audience or conduct quizzes, capturing feedback onto the whiteboard.

For the extra-curricular activities, the school has a half Olympic-size, 25m swimming pool, a 400m all-weather running track, cricket nets and playing fields which complement the indoor sports arena and multi-purpose hall that includes a drama and dance studio.

The cricket nets are used by batsmen and bowlers. They consist of a cricket pitch which is enclosed by nets on either side, to the rear and optionally the roof. The bowling end of the net is left open.

In addition, there is also a modern auditorium for pupils to use in performances, plus a separate grass playing area for pupils in FS 1 to Year 2.

The school further features a science block and five ICT laboratories with computer access also available in the libraries.

Besides the primary libraries, there are two others for the middle school and senior school.

There are also art studios and a design and technology suite that provides pupils with a wide array of resources for artistic expression, creativity, exploration and design.

A school nurse takes care of the sick at the medical dispensary located within the school and there is a stand-by vehicle to take serious cases to nearby hospitals.

The school’s registrar, Janine Buss, describes the boarding facilities as a “home away from home” where the pupils’ laundry is done for them by the institution’s employees.

“Security is also top-notch, provided by Ultimate Security with high walls, electric fences, CCTV on all exits and egresses as well as day and night security guards patrolling the school compound,” Buss says.

The lawn is well mowed and watered, rivalling the best golf courses in the country.

When Lifestyle toured the school earlier in the week, a group of male and female pupils were playing football with the assistance of two professional coaches.

The school is owned by GEMS Education, which has a global network of schools.

Besides Kenya, GEMS has 80 schools spread in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, United Kingdom, Switzerland, India, China and America.

Mr Vig says this was the first GEMS school in an ambitious expansion programme in Africa. A second one will be opened in Uganda in September next year and others will follow in Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania, he says.

GEMS Education is supported by a network of eminent international advisers, including influential world leaders and experts who are “game-changers” on the global stage.

The school has strategic partnerships with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum.

Mr Vig said the school is hoping to tap into the expanding African economies and, in Kenya, play a role in the realisation of Vision 2030 by preparing young people to push that dream into reality.

“I believe GEMS Cambridge International School will create leaders of the future. The school embraces the Kenya 2030 Vision and will develop pupils who can make a real practical impact here in Kenya as well as in the world,” Mr Vig says.

To achieve this, he says the school has embraced sports and creative arts as evidenced by the investment in the 400m international-standard running track as well as a modern auditorium.

“We are also offering vocational subjects to include science, business studies, technology and sports as part of the Edexcel BTEC programme,” he adds. “We are going to be creating children who are confident and independent learners who can face the challenges the world offers.”

The programme offers a wide range of career opportunities, including networking, software development, project management, programming and telematics.

Mr Vig defended the high fees saying there is no substitute for quality education.

“Our fee is justified because the quality of teaching is exceptional and we guarantee that, with what we are offering here, every child will succeed,” says the principal.

He says they plan to construct a second, “affordable” institution possibly by September 2014 in Athi River, where they have acquired some land.

“This will be a bit cheaper because the annual fees will be in the region of $1,000 (Sh85,000), $2,000 (Sh170,000) and $3,000 (Sh255,000),” Mr Vig says.

Neeltje Sherwin, a parent whose daughter Maya is in FS 2, paying Sh509,600 per year, says she has been paying almost the same amount in smaller schools that do not match GEMS Education.

She asserts that the quality of education is worth every dollar she is paying.





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