A passion for good education Eddah Gachukia , a prominent education scholar and the force behind Riara Group of Schools has used her experience in academia to build one of the most powerful brands in the education sector.
In July last year, Riara Group of Schools announced its intention to set up a university. It was another feather in the cap of the founders who vowed to maintain the standards of excellence that have become synonymous with the schools.
The timing was perfect. Demand for university places is at an all time high and is expected to surge in the next two years as the first batch of beneficiaries of the Free Primary Education program start seeking admissions.
“We hope to get the green light soon,” says Dr. Eddah Gachukia, the founder and academic director of Riara Group of Schools. So far, three out of the six degrees courses it plans to offer have been approved by the Commission for Higher Education.
“The commission is still reviewing our application to offer Education, Business Administration and Law.”
The campus at Mbagathi is complete and ready for use. Senior staff including the vice chancellor have been recruited and other positions are in the process of being filled. “We have never planned anything so meticulously,” says the renowned educationist, adding that the schools’ have been successful because they meet an immediate need.
“Unlike the schools which we have expanded on a need-basis, the university has to be built, equipped, staffed and accredited before we can admit students.”
The investment has transformed Riara Group into one of the biggest investors in the education sector.
And despite their success, Dr. Gachukia and her husband Daniel have a modest lifestyle. They still occupy the bungalow where she admitted her first primary school pupils in 1974. It is sandwiched between a low-roofed administration block and a three-storey building that houses the primary school. “I started the primary school with five students, three in class one and two in class two.”
Over the years, she has grown accustomed to the happy noises of the pupils, especially during break time. In fact, she relishes it and occasionally joins the learners for lunch. The pupils fondly call her grandma. “We miss them during the holidays and we can’t wait for schools to open,” she says. “I can speak about children till the cows come back home!”
It is a passion that started early in her life. In school, she was a top student and her teachers often likened her to a boy due to her prowess in Maths and sciences.
She proceeded to Makerere University College for a Diploma in Education and upon graduation in 1960 was posted to Thika High School where she taught for three years before leaving for further studies at Leeds University.
While in Europe, she also acquired a certificate in Curriculum Research and Development from the International Association for Evaluation of Achievement in Grana, Sweden.
Upon her return, she joined the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), the curriculum development and research body.
This was just after the country had gained independence and she found herself in the middle of reforms aimed at making the education system relevant to the needs of the new nation.
One of the policies being implemented at the time was the use of English as the principal language for teaching. As a division head at KIE, she could see from field trips to schools that the use of English was hindering learning as pupils found it hard to participate in class.
“No learning was taking place because teachers and students could not hold a discussion,” she says. “Class discussions are an integral part of learning.” She proposed that lessons be taught in mother tongue or Kiswahili depending on the location of the school and English to be introduced as a subject.
Her proposal was eventually accepted and rolled out nationally. “The impact was immediate since the pupils learning was not hindered by language.”
But other obstacles still persisted in the newly independent nation. For instance, there was little expertise in child psychology and this prompted her to return to university to study the subject, graduating with a Bachelors and doctorate degrees in 1971 and 1973 respectively from the University of Nairobi. She also holds a PhD in literature from the same university.
She spent most of her academic life at the university, having started lecturing in 1973 up to 1987 when she became National Advisor to UNESCO on Population Information and Development Communication for Kenya.
Six years later, she helped launch the Forum for African Women Educationalists, a non-governmental Pan African Organization based in Nairobi and serving over 30 African countries, and served as its founding executive director until 1998.
Riara School provided her with an environment where she could implement the knowledge and research insights that she had picked up. As a scholar, she explains, she had her own ideas of how to achieve the best education outcomes but she could not apply them in the public education system.
“To try out new ideas, you need space and an environment that you can control.”
The private school became a meeting point for her scholarly work and her quest to venture into business. Her initial move was to approach a white lady who had a small school across the road from her house. Barmoral Kindergarten mainly catered for white kids and the owner agreed to sell it to her.
Her reputation in the education sector helped convince parents that she could be entrusted with the education of their children. “Although an African had taken over the kindergarten, parents still brought their kids. That encouraged me a lot.”
Good teachers were few at the time. She started with the few she found in the school and later hired others who she knew personally from previous engagements. Her first headmistress had taught her children at Hospital Hill School and so had the second one.
“I looked for teachers who shared my vision. I found one or two here but I deliberately targeted those I knew, which were mainly those who had taught my children.” Her decision to hire a teacher was based on how good they were at interacting with and invested in children and whether they shared her passion for child development and education.
Starting the school was the easy part. Developing a curriculum that captured her vision for kindergarten and later primary school education took her ten years. She had to literally invent teaching aids, activities and learning materials.
“Unlike the case today, teaching aids were not available. We had to be innovative and creative.”
Riara Schools’ success is largely because of the organizational culture that she has built. The line between employer and employees is blurred. “When you observe us today we are all friends, there is no line between employer and employees. They know when I attend meetings I come as a friend, as a professional, as a colleague.”
Her staff are encouraged to discuss issues before making decisions and to “agree to disagree”. Dr Gachukia also puts forth her proposals and decisions for discussion in a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that “I don’t know everything.”
But one area where less talk and more action is evident is learning. When it comes to quality of teaching, everyone seems to understand that “hard work, commitment, and performance come first’!
Riara Schools’ goal is to offer a “holistic education’! Teachers are required to identify talents in children and nurture them. They are also trained to be meticulous planners. The director says it is common to find a teacher who knows their subject well but are not good in teaching.
“Many teachers don’t realise the importance of tact and the mode of delivery when imparting knowledge. As a result, they are quick to blame the syllabus when they don’t achieve the desired results.”
The schools use educational experts and specialists to improve performance, introduce specialized skills, and tackle areas pupils have difficulties with. “We love good and new ideas, and we never hesitate to invite anybody who can help us become even better,” she reveals.
Deliberate efforts are also made to involve parents in the learning process especially because learning goes beyond the school’s gate. “Parents have major role to play in children’s development,” says the director adding that parents are informed when they join that “the school is not a place to drop your child and expect results.”
Today, Riara Group of Schools is a huge enterprise with a population running into thousands. It consists of five institutions on two campuses namely Riara Road Kindergarten, Riara Road Primary School, Riara Springs Kindergarten, Riara Springs Primary School and Riara Springs High School
One campus is along Riara Road where the kindergarten and primary sit on various annexes along the stretch of the road while the second campus is located in Imara Daima area off Mombasa Road.
Daniel Gachukia, her husband and CEO / Chairman of Riara Group
Strong growth has seen the schools transform into one of the most recognizable brands in the education sector. Growth
has at times been overwhelming. “I would plan for 20 pupils in a new class and end up with 40,” she says. “At the beginning of every term, we were overwhelmed by the applications.” With little capital of her own and income from the school inadequate for capital investments, she used loans to expand the schools. She didn’t have collateral to offer the banks and she relied on her husband to arrange the financing. “He shared my passion for education and clearly saw the potential of the school.”
As the school outgrew their house, they started renting nearby houses. The current offices of the East African Wildlife society, for instance, served as the primary school for a year. As the student population grew, they started buying neighbouring plots.
In 1993, she founded the Forum for African Women Educationists which she served as executive director for six years.
The organisation has built a strong reputation as an advocate for girl child education. It also inspired her to start a girls’ high school, where she could “implement all the good ideas that promote girls’ and women empowerment we had learnt”
The high school posed a unique challenge. The best girls in primary national exams were admitted into the highly coveted national schools. Private schools could therefore only admit average students and those who had missed admissions in schools of their choice. Besides, parents looking for alternative secondary schools for their children gravitate towards those with high examination pass rates.
Without an exams track record, Riara Springs High School struggled to attract students. “It was empty for some time but we persevered and continued to reach out to potential parents.” Today, the school has more than 400 students and is quickly building a reputation as a top girls school.
Because of this experience, Dr Gachukia is not worried about her latest project — Riara University. Despite the millions of shillings poured into the project, the campus is yet to admit its first student. “I know they will come, one by one.” Few people would consider investing in a campus without a single student in sight. But again, few can match her foresight and determination.
Dr. (Mrs) Eddah Gachukia, Phd. Ever Learning, Ever Teaching
Dr. Eddah Gachukia has come a long way since she was posted to teach at Thika High School in 1960. After teaching for three years she left to study the English language at Leeds University returning in 1965. She Joined the Kenya Institute of Education where she worked until 1968 then joined the University of Nairobi, graduating in 1971. She received a PhD in 1973 and a doctorate in Literature in 1981.
Between 1973 and 1987 Dr. Gachukia was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. She was also a Member of Parliament between 1974 and 1983. During the period 1987 and 1990, she was National Advisor to UNESCO on Population Information and Development Communication for Kenya.
She also served more than a decade as Chairperson of Board of Governors of Kenya High School, one of the largest girls secondary schools and was on the board of Alliance Girls High School and State House Road Girls High School.
Her work took a pan African aspect when she helped found the Forum for African Women Educationists in 1993. The Nairobi-based non-governmental organization serves over 30 African countries and draws membership from women ministers of education and university vice-chancellors among others.
The career educationist also served as chairperson of Uchumi Supermarkets and as a director at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, Kenya Airways and Nation Newspapers Limited, among others. Dr Gachukia was the chair of the nine-member Free Primary Education task force that developed guidelines and strategies for implementing the program. She has thus been a great influence in the public and private education sector.
By Lucy Morangi
Business Post July / August 2012