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Hogwarts in East Africa: Why Kenya's prep schools are thriving

It's another gloriously sunny day, and dozens of young children at St Andrew's Preparatory School are setting off on their weekly run. Led by their fleet-footed teachers, the pack races several kilometres around the school's 300-acre plot before returning for prep and early supper.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this is the English countryside, perhaps transported a few decades into the past. But the setting is Africa, more than 8,000 feet above sea level in the Kenyan highlands.

St Andrew's, also known as "Turi", the name of a nearby village, is one of nine schools in Kenya that are members of the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools (Iaps), the body representing top prep schools in Britain. The Kenyan schools form the largest Iaps group outside Britain and, with rising pupil numbers, are an unusual phenomenon, proving highly popular with African families as well as expatriates. Kenya is the only former British colony to have kept such a concentration of prep schools.

"We have the same number of schools in Kenya as we do in Scotland," says David Hanson, the chief executive of Iaps. "This is a growing constituency."

Spread through the suburbs of Nairobi and the highlands of the Rift Valley, these extremely "English" prep schools could be seen as a relic of empire. But as Paddy Moss, headmaster of St Andrew's, explains, their expanding number rather reflects a faith in the calibre of British education as well as in the principles that the prep school system instils.

"Parents value the curriculum – British education does open doors," he says. "But the ethos of the school also attracts parents – the expectations of behaviour, the work hard/play hard mentality."

The widening appeal of Kenya's prep schools is reflected in the make-up of their students. Some have well over 20 nationalities. Alongside the children of expatriates and Kenyans of British and Asian extraction, many come from African countries. At Turi, more than two-thirds of pupils are Kenyan and Ugandan, with Nigerians also well represented. And families are not discouraged by the fees, which – while generally lower than their British counterparts – are high by local standards, some schools charging up to £3,500 a term.

"Parents understand absolutely that these schools represent the best of British education," says Hanson. "Their Iaps membership acts as a kitemark – parents can expect high standards, a good head and an excellent school."

Although in the heart of Africa, where warthogs wander on to the cricket pitch, and field trips take in the Masai Mara game park, the schools still offer a very English experience. Discipline and routine are key at Turi and at the well-known Banda School, situated on the outskirts of Nairobi. Traditions abound and pupils are still divided into houses, with exotic names such as Simba and Kilimanjaro.

"Having taught in prep schools in the UK, I often say that you could pick up this school and, apart from the racial background of our pupils, drop it into Sussex." says Moss. "Its ethos is so similar to UK prep schools."

Competitive sport is integral to school life. Children bound between pools, pitches and courts as they follow a termly rotation of Britain's traditional sports. A regular fixture list vies with drama, music and art for space in the timetable.

"The state system in Kenya is very much exam-driven," says Mike Dickson, headmaster of the Banda. "The majority of schools don't have the facilities to offer as many extra-curricular activities. Kenya's emerging middle class is increasingly looking for something more for their children."

The schools' links with Britain itself remain strong. Pupils at Turi and the Banda sit the 13-plus Common Entrance exams, and each year a number go on to well-known public schools such as Marlborough College, Wellington and King's Bruton. Many of the teachers, including the heads, come from Britain. Even the school doctor at Turi is a British GP.

"I was drawn to the chance to travel," says Bill Sawyer, head of design technology at the Banda, who previously taught at a state primary in Bermondsey. "I wanted to be at a good school with a good reputation, especially as I intend to return to Britain."

But, as Hanson points out, the prep school traditions of Kenya's Iaps schools are only half the story. "An outsider might think these schools are modelled on the old media caricature of a prep school," he says. "But in fact they are very lively and dynamic, and are catering to the needs of a new generation of children."

Shunning the stiff upper lip of old, the schools emphasise pastoral care and a relaxed relationship between staff and pupils. The long, communal dormitories at Turi may look old-fashioned at first glance, but, come bed-time, the teachers take turns playing and reading with the children before lights out. At the Banda, the staff room sits on the edge of the main quad, its door always open.

"The thing I like most about Turi is that it's like a family," says Wanda Nyairo, 12, who is in Year 8 at the school.

The schools' shift away from their traditional origins is also evident in the curriculum. In the past 10 years, Turi and the Banda have dropped Latin from the syllabus. Turi now offers optional Swahili. Other subjects also reflect the African setting. "We felt the history syllabus was too Eurocentric, so we look at ancient civilisations and examples of independence movements, which are much more linked to the pupils' experiences," says Moss. "In geography we choose relevant case studies, so for tectonics we can use the Rift Valley as an example."

The evolution of Kenya's prep schools is reflected no better than at Brookhouse, a supremely forward-looking school with buildings resembling Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films and a spaceship-like computer lab. Not far from the Banda and adjacent to the sprawling Nairobi National Park, Brookhouse eschews tradition, combining unusual and generous facilities with a varied educational programme. But this modern school established in the Eighties still recently chose to join Kenya's prep school community.

"We joined Iaps in 2008," says Emma Lalani, head of preparatory at Brookhouse. "Parents know they can rely on the standard of education. It also gives us links with other schools, and enhances our commitment to professional development for our staff."

Brookhouse's decision reinforces the continuing appeal of British-based education in an African country that has worked hard to break free from its colonial past. "Parents know that we are not just a small primary school in Africa," says Dickson. "And they also know that sending their children here could mean a ticket to a very good secondary school."

For Hanson, Kenya mirrors the broader evolution of British preparatory schools. "Kenya's prep schools have travelled from their historical roots as schools for white expats to being schools for all Kenyans," he says. "They have demonstrated how traditional values – including respect, compassion and discipline – can be combined with building a school fit for the 21st century."