So the children at Pretoria West High School are protesting the right to wear skinny pants. The uniforms are too big, they say. This is funny, of course. In this land of incessant demands, why not?
If further up the education ladder university students are demanding flavoured condoms rather than government-issued balloons, right on.
In fact, just last week teacher education students in Durban were demanding the university accommodates them in hotels (room service, please) rather than in any student digs.
This time our energetic MEC Panyaza Lesufi did not rush off to the Pretoria school with the invited publicity that accompanies his visits. This, after all, was not hair troubles with the politically alluring scent of racial discrimination. Now the class- boycotting learners were directed to lay a complaint with the governing authority of the school – as should have happened with other student complaints after failing at the principal’s office.
It’s a sign of things to come, the kind of permissiveness that slips through the door when everything is up for grabs in the name of transformation. Now to be clear, I personally could not care less what children wear to school. I have never been a big fan of uniforms – the standardisation of clothing merely reflects and reinforces the standardisation of thinking that pervades the education system. Our culture is more likely to mimic than to innovate, to award memory work than maverick behaviour. But this is South Africa and its school cultures have been set in place over more than a century. It is not America.
There is a resident logic to the more positive aspects of our national school cultures. Like the fact that uniforms create a sense of equality which prevents the rich kids from showing off and shaming the poor ones. Or the fact that uniforms, where neat and affordable, provide a sense of common identity among children from very different race, class and religious backgrounds in a diverse school. And there is little doubt that the uniform often engenders among students a sense of pride inside the school and outside in the community.
We already have a massive problem with discipline in our schools. Not a week passes without another incident of a violent male trampling a female student or mobile phone recordings of some school-based atrocity. What school policy such as a dress code does is to provide the authorities with an imperfect but necessary instrument for managing the behaviour of children. In other words, it is not about the uniform as such but what it stands for in the culture and aspirations of a public or private school. We need to respect that.
Of course there are negative aspects of our school cultures that have to go – like corporal punishment, still applied under cover in many schools, and enforced language usage, like instructing children not to speak in the vernacular but English only. There is no evidence, by the way, that speaking more than one language on the school grounds negatively affects competence in a school’s principal language(s) of instruction. If anything, multilingualism enriches campus and school ground cultures.
Baby and bathwater, in other words. Knowing the difference is crucial and government officials are wise not to destroy the powerful school cultures that give South Africa some of the best institutions on the continent.
You know a strong school culture when you see it. Children arrive on time. Teachers waiting for them at every classroom door. One-on-one parent meetings every single term to review the child’s progress. Every child required to play one sport. Senior students mentor incoming juniors. Never pass an adult stranger on campus without stopping to greet. All learners commit to community service. Wear a neat and tidy uniform at all times.
Building such cultures takes years, even decades. Breaking them down can happen overnight and with that goes the academic performance and reputation of a school. I have seen this happen so often, such as when a principal or core of good teachers leave or the demographics of a school quickly changes and instead of holding fort, the resident authorities give in to indiscipline and incivility.
It is time to push back against skinny pants. Not every act of protest is progressive in that it makes school cultures more inclusive or strengthens the academic reputation of the institution.
I agree with MEC Lesufi: this is petty and there are much more serious things to attend to in our schools, such as boosting performance in science and mathematics.