A matter of values
Prominent educator Matthew Farley has been leading the news all week over his suspension of 265 students from the Graydon Sealy Secondary School for uniform infringements. The principal’s action has been greeted with mixed response from the public and affected students’ parents, several of whom have sought immediate redress.
In today’s Big Interview, Farley tells SUNDAY?SUN?Editor Bryan Walker that maintaining discipline in school is no easy task but he continues to be guided by principle.
Give us a breakdown of the types of infractions committed by these 265 students who were suspended on Monday.
Farley: The main infraction, and for which we were concerned for some time, was in relation to lengths of the overalls and the skirts. There were a number of instances where boys were wearing pants that were oversized at the waist.
• In which category were the biggest infractions?
Farley: I would say that about 80 per cent were in relation to short skirts and short overalls.
• Were the majority first, second formers, or among the older students?
There were 27 first years, 49 second years, 63 third years, 48 fourth years and 85 in the fifth year, including 22 returning fifths. The breaches for the most part were short skirts.About 60 per cent were girls, but we also have a new trend that is emerging . . . . From this year we saw more and more boys wearing suedes.
• Were most of these students first-time or repeat offenders?
Farley: In terms of the skirts and overalls lengths, repeat offenders. Since I came back from September 1, I have been working with the students, so unless you take action, the child will say, ‘Well Sir, you saw me last week and you didn’t do anything’.
So they were repeat offenders, students whom the year head would have spoken to, the form teacher would have spoken to. I would have addressed the matter at full assembly and at other gatherings. It was not a case of our getting up on Monday morning and saying, ‘Just go home’. We have been appealing, and beseeching, almost begging the students to do something about it.
• How many of those you suspended on Monday actually came back and corrected the problem?
Farley: I inspected about 60 students this morning [Thursday] who came back, and it was remarkable to see the change.
• So of that 265, how many were back in school this week and passed your test?
Farley: A few came back in on Wednesday after I had spoken with the parents, because adjustments were made quickly. I would say by now about half of them are back and the adjustments have been made.
• Have you had to suspend any more since Monday?
Farley: To be honest with you, if I had had the chance to do some more inspections, there were a few who would have been suspended.
• Earlier this week you stressed you were applying reasonableness to the situation. But, Mr Farley, five days out of school for an oversized pants, tight or baggy trousers, wrong socks, nail polish? Is that reasonable? Isn’t that a bit too much or too long?
Farley: The five days were never intended to be a sticking point. They were really intended to grab the attention of the parent that the school is grappling with an ongoing problem, of which their child or ward is part.
• Some people say it was your intention to grab the headlines?
Farley: I didn’t put the story in the paper.
• But some say it is more about your ego, about you Matthew Farley, moreso than the students?
Farley: I have been doing things in education for over three decades. I don’t have to do anything to grab the headlines; I do my work. If people feel it is newsworthy, they do that. The story that was carried in the newspaper [on Wednesday], I had nothing to do with it.
It was the irate parents who were out here, some of whom have never been to the school before, who don’t come to PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] meetings, who wanted to tell a story.
What was interesting was that the uniforms we saw in the paper were not the ones the students wore when they were inspected.
• What then was the difference?
Farley: The impression was given that here is this principal who thinks he is a maguffy, suspending children whose uniforms almost look like nighties. But those are not the uniforms they were wearing when they got suspended. So I don’t know if the public is aware of what statement is being [made] here.
Is this an attempt to make the principal look unreasonable? I don’t know, but these [pointing to the newspaper] are clearly not what we saw. They were uniforms which were largely above the knee or on the knee, but not below the knee.
• So these same students, when they came back on Tuesday, were they taken back into school?
Farley: No they were not!
• Why not? They were wearing the correct length uniforms now.
Farley: These were some of the repeat offenders who had adequate
time . . . . There was a letter given to students on October 2 which said we have some concerns about the repeated problems of the dress code – and we listed what the problems were – and parents were told they had until October 12 to make [it right]. A lot of people did not read the letter; some parents said they did not get the letter.
We felt that parents had enough time to make the adjustments, and to the extent that they did not, some form of punishment was necessary. Once the adjustments were made, we did not insist on the five-day suspension having to be spent. So for the majority we adjusted the suspension period.
• But why then didn’t you accept these students back in school?
Farley: The original letter had said they would be suspended for five days or [allowed back] as soon as the problem was corrected. We had gone past that point and we figured that suspension was now necessary. Even though they came back on Tuesday, and with the suspension taking effect from Tuesday, it was determined by us that some part of [it] had to be spent at home, otherwise it would have defeated the purpose. Some spent two days and came back on Thursday.
• Some people say you have really gone overboard with this dress code enforcement. In fact, they are calling you the “Hemline Headmaster”. How do you respond to that?
Farley: Going overboard,?I don’t know what they mean by that . . . . I have been involved in management going 17 years now. I have a sense of what the role of the school is. It is not just to produce certificated individuals, but to produce individuals who have a sense of values and standards, and who understand what is right and what is decent.
Not that you will be perfect, [but] just as academics are important, values and standards are also important. I don’t usually comment on the actions of my colleagues [other principals] unless I am going to say something positive, but unlike my colleague at Harrison College who commented in another part of the media about this issue, I don’t see this as a distraction, or of less importance.
You could have brilliant individuals whose attitudes, standards and values are poor. I would prefer to have somebody who has the right attitude – I can train them – but if I have a bright intellectual who has no standards, I have a problem with him.
Therefore a school is to focus on both aspects of the children we are developing, otherwise you have bright criminals . . . . So I say to [Mr Winston] Crichlow at Harrison College, who commented on this issue in a way to suggest I might have gone overboard, or that I am emphasising what he calls the little things, that my vision of my role as a principal is that I am not just producing academics. I am producing young, well rounded individuals whose intellectual as well as emotional intelligence are intact.
• Do you get a lot of support from fellow principals, or that type of reaction?
Farley: I have had no calls from even one of my colleagues. I’ve never had that kind of support – not that I have sought it. I run the Garrison School based on what my understanding of my role is. It doesn’t worry me that I don’t get calls from them. My motivation comes from within me.
It’s not that I have a big ego, but I do not depend on others to affirm me. I affirm myself, because the day somebody else doesn’t affirm you, then you are in trouble. So affirmation from my colleagues? If it comes, it comes, but it is not at my core; I am self-driven.
However, I feel it is less than professional for one principal to be commenting adversely on the actions of another principal based on how he or she sees his or her role.
• But isn’t this the crux of the problem? There seems to be an inconsistency in terms of how different principals administer discipline when it comes to the dress code?
Farley: I took a stance here at the Garrison in 2007 when I sent home
213 children, in a similar situation. I remember going to BAPPSS [Barbados Association of Principals of Public Secondary Schools], and I said to them,
“Look, this issue of the dress code should not just be about the Garrison”.
I remember Jeff Broomes at the time making the point that it should not just be about Matthew Farley or the Garrison, this should be a system-wide approach.
I was a member of a committee that involved Mr [David] Browne from Queen’s College, Shelton Perkins [The St Michael School] . . . and we came to a decision in 2009 as BAPPSS to have a standardized set of dress code rules to implemented across the system.
So there should not be any inconsistencies because we agreed that the hemlines would be two inches below the knee, that scarves would be banned, that cellphones would not be in schools . . . . We agreed on them across the board. The Ministry [of Education] was there, and we said this is what we want to happen in all schools. The fact that I enforce mine should not reflect badly on me.
• But it reflects badly on the entire school system.
Farley: The fact that they don’t enforce theirs causes me to look as though I am the big maguffy. I should not be hauled across the coals because I enforce mine. They should be hauled across the coals for not enforcing theirs.
It creates a problem, because if you have two children – one going to the Garrison, one going to school X – in the same house, then why is it that Mr Farley is insisting on two inches below the knee for Garrison girls, and a girl going to another school is allowed to wear uniforms above her knee, and that principal is doing nothing about it?
• Who is responsible for administering this code of discipline? Is the ministry in any way to blame for the fact that there is no consistency?
Farley: But the ministry doesn’t run schools; schools are run by principals. According to the Education Act, the principal is responsible for discipline. If a school has rules and it does not enforce those rules, the children, aided and abetted by their parents, will push the boundaries back as far as they are allowed.
• Don’t you think the system has to be changed to have more consistency?
Farley: No, you don’t need to change the system. If the schools have rules, the rules have to be enforced across the board.
• What then will you tell your fellow principals who, as you say, are not enforcing the rules?
Farley: I will not tell them anything. They run their schools, I run mine . . . . The pressure should not be put on me for doing the right thing. It should be put on the other principals who are creating the inconsistency for them to do the right thing.
• So you are saying that Farley is right and everybody else is wrong?
Farley: No, we agreed on a dress code that should be enforced in all schools. Should I be penalized because I enforce mine?
It is not just about the two inches below the knee, you know. It is not about the earrings, the weave, the scarves that are banned; it is not about the shoes.
It is a values system that you are trying to inculcate in students who have pride in their deportment, to recognize that when they leave school and go into the world of work, most organizations have a dress code.
Why shouldn’t a school insist on those standards in the same way that we seek to develop academic skills?
• Some people say you are crazy over this obsession with the hemlines and dress codes. What would you say to them?
Farley: If being crazy means you insist on standards, then I am crazy. If being crazy means you want to send both academic and moral lessons to your students, then I am crazy. If being crazy means you are not going to sit back in school and allow the traditions that have been bequeathed to me by Graydon Sealy and the principals whose photographs are here to slide, then I am crazy.
It hurts me sometimes to travel along the highways of Barbados and see girls with short, short skirts, and they don’t play netball for the school. Or to see boys with their pants underneath their butts.
Or to see boys with scarves around their necks and heads, when they used to use the scarves to disguise themselves and go in the bathrooms, bully the other guys and rob them of their money.
It was a rationale on why we identified all those dress code rules.
All that is required now is not for the principal of the Graydon Sealy School to be pilloried, but for the other principals to find ways to do what I believe is just as important as academics.
• You had deliberations earlier this week with the Ministry of Education. Has the ministry scolded you, or given you its full backing?
Farley: I took a report on the events of Monday to the ministry, indicating the background to the problem and . . . pointing out that contrary to the impression given in the media, it was a progressive set of steps we had taken that culminated in the full inspection on Monday and the suspensions that took effect.
I indicated to them in very clear terms that given our vision for Graydon Sealy Secondary School, we believe that deportment and the adherence to rules are part and parcel of our ethos. Way back in Mr Sealy’s time, I remember he sent home a number of children for wearing the wrong shoes . . . so this is not something I have started. It is part of the tradition of the Garrison School.
• Have you received a favourable response from the ministry?
Farley: The ministry recognizes what I am doing, and they indicated to me that they are supportive of my efforts.
• If they are supportive of your efforts, shouldn’t they then be encouraging the other principals to do likewise?
Farley: I can’t speak for the ministry.
• Don’t you think the ministry is a bit slack in this regard, and perhaps can do more?
Farley: I wouldn’t want to say my ministry is slack. To be honest, I feel that if we can get a stronger, more definitive signal from the ministry, either that speaks to support for or indicates from their end they are providing strong, firm leadership, that would help us.
• Are you saying you would like the ministry to give you a public endorsement?
Farley: I am not saying that. It is the ministry that needs to hold the entire system by the scruff of its neck and say, “Look, I am in control, these are the standards we will not fall below”.
• You are speaking here of the ministry, or the minister?
Farley: This is not about the politicians, you know. Mr [Ronald] Jones, to be fair to him, has been trying to send some signals to parents and teachers – we don’t always agree with him – about the value of education, deportment, behaviour and so on.
• Has Mr Jones ever given you any endorsement or commendation as to what you’re doing?
Farley: Of course he has.
• So he’s in your corner, so to speak?
Farley: I believe he is. Any person who understands education in all its dimensions will understand that what I am doing here is not a distraction, as Mr Crichlow at Harrison College would want us to believe. I don’t want to be disingenuous to my colleagues, but if people feel I have been excessive by sending home so many children, I challenge them to do full inspection at their schools.
Anyone of them who feels I have been excessive, do full inspection at their school on Monday morning. And my 265 will look like a picnic . . . .
There is too much indiscipline in this country, and if I can make a small contribution by way of my perception of my role as a principal, and my understanding of education, then that is what I will do.