Whose val­ues in­form school tra­di­tions?

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

The ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has faced many ob­sta­cles over the past few years. From chal­lenges re­gard­ing lan­guage as a medium of in­struc­tion and admission pro­ce­dures that per­pet­u­ate dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­equal­ity, to codes of con­duct that vi­o­late the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of our Con­sti­tu­tion.

Th­ese in­clude at­tempts to “de­colonise” the school cur­ricu­lum, progress to­wards ac­com­mo­dat­ing pupils with dis­abil­i­ties within the main­stream school sys­tem, and the move­ment to­wards the re­nam­ing of old schools that re­flect op­pres­sive value sys­tems in a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy.

All th­ese in­ci­dents high­light the fact that dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­lated intolerance re­main per­va­sive within the school sys­tem. Rang­ing from overt acts of racism to more in­di­rect forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion, th­ese per­pet­u­ate prej­u­dice and intolerance. Mul­ti­ple in­ci­dents point to the fact that school codes of con­duct con­tinue to pro­mote dis­crim­i­na­tory rules and have failed to trans­form to fall in line with the val­ues of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Af­ter 23 years of democ­racy, some pupils are still un­able to learn in their mother tongue, while other schools per­pet­u­ate racial seg­re­ga­tion by di­vid­ing classes along racial lines.

In 2008, the Con­sti­tu­tional Court handed down judg­ment in the matter of MEC for Ed­u­ca­tion: KwaZulu-Na­tal v Pil­lay, in which the court en­gaged with vi­tal ques­tions about the na­ture of dis­crim­i­na­tion, re­li­gion and cul­tural ex­pres­sion in public schools. Ul­ti­mately, the court reaf­firmed the need to pro­vide for rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion, and em­pha­sised that re­li­gious and cul­tural di­ver­sity should not be viewed as “a pa­rade of hor­ri­bles, but a pageant of di­ver­sity that will en­rich our schools and, in turn, our country”.

Yet, al­most a decade later, many schools have failed to give ef­fect to the essence of this judg­ment.

This year alone, the country has wit­nessed mul­ti­ple in­ci­dents where pupils have been de­nied rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion of cul­tural and re­li­gious di­ver­sity; where codes of con­duct have re­flected struc­tural racism and trans­pho­bia; where overt acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion – in­clud­ing racism and xeno­pho­bia – have been triv­i­alised or con­doned; and where dis­pro­por­tion­ate and se­ri­ous forms of pun­ish­ment have been im­posed on pupils for rel­a­tively mi­nor in­fringe­ments.

The country’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is un­doubt­edly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the grow­ing pains of trans­for­ma­tion. Schools are mir­rors of so­ci­ety, and on­go­ing in­stances of dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­lated intolerance re­flect the com­plex and sys­tem­atic chal­lenges fac­ing so­ci­ety more broadly. Schools, like other so­cial spa­ces, are strug­gling to con­front deeply in­grained in­sti­tu­tional cul­tures that have been built up over years.

A case in point is the high court judg­ment on June 28 on the pro­mo­tion of re­li­gion in schools, where the court found that public schools that pro­mote one re­li­gion over oth­ers was in­con­sis­tent with sec­tion 7 of the South African Schools Act. De­spite the judg­ment encouraging re­li­gious di­ver­sity at schools, it was largely crit­i­cised by mem­bers of the public and re­li­gious groups as an as­sault on re­li­gious free­dom.

The reading of the Lord’s Prayer and scrip­tures from the Bi­ble, re­li­gious sym­bol­ism and value state­ments are tra­di­tions that have been built up over years, and are re­garded as sacra­ment and cen­tral to the char­ac­ter or ethos of some schools. But, in­creas­ingly, th­ese tra­di­tions are be­ing chal­lenged as no longer re­flec­tive of the true val­ues of di­ver­sity and equal­ity em­bod­ied in the Con­sti­tu­tion.

At its core, this de­bate is not about re­li­gious free­dom. Rather, the sen­si­tiv­i­ties are lo­cated within the fear of de­con­struct­ing deeply held tra­di­tions upon which many schools have de­fined them­selves for years.

School gov­ern­ing bod­ies are em­pow­ered to de­velop their own value sys­tems, rules and pro­ce­dures. How­ever, this must be done within the de­fined lim­its of the Con­sti­tu­tion and, more im­por­tantly, must be done with crit­i­cal re­flec­tion on the un­spo­ken premises of the tra­di­tional norms and stan­dards be­ing pro­moted.

We are in­creas­ingly be­ing forced to grap­ple with dif­fi­cult ques­tions re­gard­ing what our tra­di­tions and value sys­tems mean to us, and also how they are per­ceived and ex­pe­ri­enced by oth­ers.

Our country os­ten­si­bly val­ues the ideals of equal­ity, dig­nity and di­ver­sity, and yet fe­male pupils are still be­ing pro­hib­ited from shav­ing their heads, while male pupils are not al­lowed to grow out their hair. Whose value sys­tems are used to de­fine whether an Afro, braids or side-cut are ap­pro­pri­ate forms of ex­pres­sion com­pat­i­ble with the im­age a school wishes to por­tray?

Schools pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion through a for­mal cur­ricu­lum, but they also per­pet­u­ate other value sys­tems that then de­fine per­cep­tions and be­hav­iours. Thus, the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem – both public and pri­vate – is per­fectly po­si­tioned to break down stereo­types and prej­u­dices, and to pro­mote the true val­ues of the Con­sti­tu­tion and of a so­ci­ety based on equal­ity, tol­er­ance and di­ver­sity.

Aside from tol­er­ance and rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion, schools should be pro­mot­ing so­cial in­te­gra­tion, and encouraging cre­ativ­ity and ex­pres­sion, rather than con­form­ity and as­sim­i­la­tion into dom­i­nant cul­tures.

In­stead of a school sys­tem that merely ac­com­mo­dates or tol­er­ates mi­nor­ity iden­ti­ties and be­liefs, what is re­quired here is a sys­tem that em­braces a cul­ture of di­ver­sity, dig­nity and equal­ity as de­manded by the found­ing val­ues of our Con­sti­tu­tion.

The SA Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion has pre­vi­ously called on the de­part­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion to con­duct au­dits of all school codes of con­duct to en­sure that they are aligned with the Con­sti­tu­tion and, more specif­i­cally, with the Bill of Rights. How­ever, amend­ing codes of con­duct alone will not re­pair a frac­tured so­cial fab­ric.

We need open and trans­par­ent di­a­logues – even on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues – be­cause it is only by con­fronting the past that we can be­gin to heal our di­vi­sions.

In the in­terim, school gov­ern­ing bod­ies should be more proac­tive in eval­u­at­ing the codes of con­duct and the prac­tices of the schools they gov­ern, and do so with ap­pre­ci­a­tion of their obli­ga­tions to pro­mote the val­ues of our Con­sti­tu­tion and a com­mit­ment to the achieve­ment of trans­for­ma­tion in so­ci­ety.

Ad­vo­cate Gaum is a com­mis­sioner of the SA Hu­man Rights

Com­mis­sion re­spon­si­ble for the right to ed­u­ca­tion

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