The cry of “Good morning, Sir”, which greeted me on my first morning at Pembroke House Prep School, in Gilgil, just two hours drive north-west of Nairobi, was somewhat disconcerting on two fronts. Firstly, I was not quite sure what I had done to deserve such an enthusiastic welcome and, secondly, I could not work out from where, or from whom, the greeting came. After some searching, the location was discovered some 20 ft up in a tree where three boys were happily perched, one of whom was reading a book!
Warm greetings and climbing trees are a strong feature of Pembroke life, along with a myriad of other activities that were once the birth-right of so many children across the globe, most of which have been lost through a combination of Health and Safety legislation and over-anxious parenting which, with the best of intentions, have promoted the pernicious lie that children are not to be trusted and are incapable of making sensible decisions surrounding their own safety and wellbeing. I believe educationalists, and perhaps the world at large, are starting to recognise that risk-taking, excitement, adventure and space to play, free from overbearing scrutiny and a culture of blame as and when things go astray, is what makes for happy children.
It is quite remarkable how the boys and girls at Pembroke are so positive, personable and upbeat, which explains why the top schools in the UK, Europe and around Africa can’t wait to recruit them when they leave here at 13. They are well-rounded individuals who know how to interact positively with adults and their peers alike, are not afraid of new challenges and are always prepared to give of their best, regardless of outcome.
It would be foolish to deny that there are high expectations of the children, be it academically, behaviourally, culturally or athletically, but how much easier it is to reach these high standards when a child feels good about them self and has the space and freedom to be a child and not be overly exposed to the bone-crushing burden of being a mini adult.
Now in its 90th year, the alumni of Pembroke form an impressive list of authors, journalists, conservationists, explorers, farmers, actors, musicians, captains of industry and politicians but, more importantly, they, along with all others who leave Pembroke, appear remarkably happy in their own skin and look back on their time at Pembroke with great affection – as any child would who is encouraged to make shacks in the woods, go mud-sliding, take up horse-riding, splash barefoot in the school pond in front of the staffroom, ride bicycles, go camping in the bush, climb Mt Kenya, and plant trees for future generations to climb.
Nick Higham is Ex Headmaster, UK and Current Housemaster – Pembroke House