It is difficult enough for parents and teachers to pick out a student from a distance from tens of others when they are in uniform. But this could become even more difficult if a proposal to have all students in the country wear the same uniform from January next year is implemented.
The problem, according to Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang, is that some uniforms have become so fanciful that they resemble civilian wear, making it difficult to identify secondary and primary school students when they sneak out for the odd indulgence, or even fomenting unrest in schools.
Objections to the proposal were swift, including from students, who said uniforms represent more than clothing and reflect the culture and aspirations of a particular school
"School uniform colour has a meaning to the school and general community. We should have more engagement on this proposal," said Kenya Secondary School Heads Association (Kessha) Chairman Kahi Indimuli.
Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed calmed the situation yesterday, saying the matter would be put before stakeholders for discussion.
"Schools have sponsors, and that means that we should consult them before we make any decision," Ms Mohamed said.
Mr Nicholas Maiyo, Chairman of the National Parents Association that came up with the proposal, said it is meant to reduce the cost of uniforms for parents."We have students buying uniforms at different prices, which is very costly to parents in the country. School managements are selling the uniforms to students at exorbitant prices, and that is why we want to end this practice," said Mr Maiyo. The government last year directed schools to stop referring parents to particular uniform suppliers in order to stem the collusion between schools and suppliers, but the directive, like the one on school fees, has not been heeded.It is not clear how the association came up with the proposal, since its organising secretary, Mr Osborne Mabalu, differed with Mr Maiyo.
"I attended the workshop in Machakos last week where Maiyo came up with this suggestion. We did not agree on the way forward so we were surprised when the PS promised Rivatex the business of manufacturing fabric for the uniforms," Dr Mabalu told journalists in Kisumu.
We had not established by the time of going to press whether Rivatex has the capacity for this and what it the cost implications would be.
"As we move towards having the same uniform and fabric in all our schools, we want Rivatex to prepare so that they play a role in their manufacture," Dr Kipsang said.
In Kakamega, Boniface Manda of Bunge la Haki civil society group, threatened legal action over the move.
Mr Maiyo said primary school pupils would have a common uniform, as would secondary school students. The colour of the would be decided after further consultations, Mr Maiyo said. But schools would retain their badges.
School uniforms come in a variety, with a dress, skirt and blouse or tunic and blouse for girls in primary school, and a skirt and blouse for those in secondary school. Then there are ties and sweaters or blazers, as well as games kits, among other items.
Mr Maiyo said having the same uniform would also help address self-esteem among learners from smaller schools, who are intimidated when they meet their expensively dressed counterparts from elite schools.
"We want our children to feel equal, irrespective of schools they attend. We do not want our children to feel intimidated by other students," said Mr Maiyo, adding that a standard uniform would make it easier for the government to subsidise the cost.
He asked teachers, school sponsors and other stakeholders to submit their views to the Ministry of Education.
While the concerns about costs are hard to dispute, there are fears that an opaque centralised procurement system would only replace the individual traders who collude with school heads to inflate prices.
Mr John Mark Wandera, the principal of Booker Academy in Mumias, argues that the proposal is likely to create a monopoly and deny small-scale traders a means of livelihood.
"The proposal to adopt a single uniform will open a window for cartels and ruin the textile market," he said.
A few countries in Africa, like Ghana and neighbouring Tanzania, already have policies, with learners in all public schools wearing identical uniforms.
Parents spend thousands of shillings on school uniforms. In some schools, the cost of a full set of uniform be as high as Sh60,000, especially for students joining secondary school.
A good number of schools force parents to buy items from particular shops, which charge more, under an exclusive arrangement with suppliers. Some of the parents interviewed said they had paid between Sh2, 000 and Sh7, 000 extra per item at the shops they were referred to by the schools.
Last year, Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) Director-General Kariuki Wang'ombe, asked parents to report any cases of collusion between schools and suppliers for its intervention.
In Nairobi, more than 10 parents the Nation spoke to said a common uniform would encourage misconduct among students because it would be difficult to tell which school they come from."How will we tell students apart? asked Mary Kago, a vendor on River Road.
They said school uniforms give learners a sense of belonging.
Meanwhile, uniform sellers doubted that the proposal would reduce costs for parents.
"As long as the school badges are available only at specific shops, the exploitation will not stop," said Damaris Ng'ang'a of Global Uniforms on Duruma Road in Nairobi.
Some distributors objected to the move for fear of incurring losses through dead stock, while others said it would lead to job cuts.
Reporting by Ouma Wanzala, Lilys Njeru, Rushdie Oudia, and Shaban Makokha.