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IN THE CANDID CORNER: Take a mile!

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Take a mile!

By Matthew Farley | Sun, November 11, 2012 - 12:00 AM

If you leave youth its liberty, you will have to dig dungeons for ages. – Michel Eyquem De Montaigne, French philosopher/essayist.

The recent suspension of students from the Graydon Sealy Secondary School evoked much public discussion. A number of questions were raised both by educational practitioners and casual observers, not to forget those whose agenda seemed to be nothing more than to give the impression that the school was unreasonable in its demand for students to adhere to its rules.

As the dust has settled on the public discussion, I want to use this week’s column to make what I think is the most important point that should not be overlooked in this entire scenario. It answers the key question as to who is responsible for discipline in the school.

The Education Regulations and the Education Act are both undoubtedly clear. Education Regulations 15 to 18 spell out the duties of the principal. They state that subject to the policy of the minister and the general directions of the board, every principal (17:C) is responsible for the discipline of the school. Education Regulation 18 continues: “Every principal in public schools shall, subject to the act and these regulations (18:i), ensure that discipline is maintained throughout the school at all times.”

Providing the supportive role is the senior teacher in the secondary school. Regulation 21 (A to D) outlines the duties of the person so designated. According to 21 (A), “A senior teacher in a public school is, in addition to his normal teaching duties, responsible for . . . the general welfare and discipline of pupils of a particular year group.”

While ultimately the principal is responsible for discipline in the school, Regulation 21 (A-K) spells out the duties of the teacher in so far as those duties relate to discipline. At Regulation 21 (F), “The teacher is to maintain proper order and discipline among the pupils under his care.”

It is not unusual for people to confuse punishment with the concept of discipline [but] the Education Regulations are clear. While the principal is responsible for administering corporal punishment and may delegate that authority to other people, the broader concept of discipline comes under the responsibility of the principal, the senior teacher and the teacher. For practical purposes, therefore, there is a collective responsibility which is shared by the principal and those over whom he or she has a supervisory role.

So when we talk about the discipline of a school, what do we mean? In real terms, it is an all-embracing concept that speaks to the overall climate, culture and ethos of the school as an educational institution. It encompasses all the rules, ordinances and regulations, whether these relate to classroom behaviour, the sanitation of the compound, the level of order and decorum which is evident, how students move along the corridors, how they board the buses, how they interact with one another and with teachers, and how they deport themselves on the streets and highways.

It includes their general attitude to study and to school, and the list goes on. The school is a social organization whose very existence depends on the extent to which it enforces its rules. Schools either fail or succeed on the extent to which they enforce their rules.

In an article carried in last Tuesday’s DAILY NATION headlined: Give An Inch, the Minister of Education is reported to have said that principals must use discretion in enforcing school rules. No school principal who understands his role would disagree with Mr Ronald Jones. Discretion is part of the daily vocabulary and modus operandi of every educational practitioner. It’s discretion that sees us warning, giving students second, third and so many other chances to get things right.

When, for instance, we deal with persistent late-comers by calling their parents and begging them to work with us to inculcate the value of punctuality, that is discretion.

In this case, the school was exercising discretion ever since September 10. When we issued the early letters of suspension, they gave parents time to make the uniform adjustments. In some instances, parents were given until the end of October or November to get the correct shoes. Given the financial situation, parents requested and were granted more time to get it right.

In terms of the actual inspection, there were borderline cases which we allowed to pass. There were cases where all we required for the student to do was to drop the hem. We did not operate at the periphery. In fact, there was no tape measure, with teachers seeking to extract every inch or centimetre of cloth.

Overalls and skirts were supposed to cover the knees and extend two inches below.

At every point we “tempered justice with mercy” and understood that our role as principals and teachers was twofold. We are instructional leaders and equally, we focus on objectives in the affective domain.

As educators, we are always painfully cognizant that if as a school we fail in the latter, the former will fall flat and the broad goals of education will continue to elude us.

In conclusion, Mr Minister, in good old Bajan parlance, we also recognize that if we “give an inch”, many students, aided and abetted by their parents and wider society, will “take a mile”. When they do, the distance between order, decorum and decency on the one hand and anarchy on the other is dangerously less.

• Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and a social commentator.

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