Discipline in Schools

Tom Stokes, MPP

DA KZN Spokesperson on Education

The Democratic Alliance opposed the KwaZulu-Natal education budget again this year – not because the department and provincial cabinet had not understood what needs to be fixed in our schools – but because they simply have not understood the urgency of the problem.

The complacent response from ANC party members, that they will eventually get to fix the problems, is just not good enough. The huge down-stream costs of delays in fixing the problems now and the huge benefits both in human and economic welfare if they are fixed now demand a far more responsible budgeting exercise than has been presented to us. One would have thought that the lessons from Eskom’s present crisis as a result of delaying building new power stations when they should have would have been learnt.

Part of the reason that our political leadership can get away with delaying the inevitable rectification of our schools is due to the fact that the majority of our Black population cannot conceive the gap between the kind of education they endured and their children are experiencing.  An area that most ex-model C schools accept as part of the schools “hidden curriculum” and which is almost totally absent, in a conscious sense, in most of our Black schools, is the ethos of the school.  This is the atmosphere of discipline, cooperation, pride in the uniform and respect for teachers and the value given to scholastic achievement as a means to becoming a better person. The desperately poor academic results in our schools over the past 20 years has resulted in a focus on percentage pass rates and very little attention to the equally important aspect of schooling of the socializing of children to become healthy, happy and responsible adults.

Every now and again, when a pupil is stabbed to death by fellow learner, or when we hear that there were 17 000 school girl pregnancies last year in our province, or when a schoolgirl is raped in a toilet, the violent reality in our schools shakes us out of our complacency that schools are pretty much the same as when we were at school.

While the banning of corporal punishment is only right, with it we assume that schools have put in place alternate discipline structures. We see changes in attitudes in our own children as our liberal policies give children a sense of their own rights, and we see how internet and video games have changed leisure patterns.  Yet we rarely ask how that translates into the school milieu. We know that drugs, particularly the new generation of drugs like Tic and Woonga, are devastating individual lives, but seldom do we ask how this scourge is handled in schools vulnerable to drug dealers.

There can be no doubt that discipline at schools generally, and in certain suburbs in particular, is under stress. Many teachers have expressed the frustration, and sometimes fear, that they experience in their daily fight to assert classroom discipline amongst learners who often find little relevance in classroom activities and little benefit in getting a job from acquiring a matric certificate that has little credibility in the market place. Principals often feel powerless themselves in the face of departmental and parental apathy, and Teacher Union bullying. The huge stampede by parents to ex-model C and private schools is as much about securing a safe learning environment for their children as it is about giving them a better chance to acquire a better matric pass.

But the socializing process is not merely about instilling discipline. Many of our children need urgent counseling and most of them need positive role models and guidance in choosing life paths. What distinguish the really great schools from the very good is the extent of the school’s guidance systems and the consequent positive behaviour of pupils as they move through these vitally important development years. This is particularly noticeable at boys’ schools where anti-social behaviour is more observable with outbreaks of fighting, rudeness to teachers, bullying, gang activities, drug usage and constant transgressing simple school rules. Often good schools employ a very strict, prefect -led, obedience-based regime to contain these disruptive activities, but sometimes fail to back this up with on-going remedial counseling. The reason for this is that school counseling is time consuming and expensive. Teachers are taken out of classrooms to spend time on small group and one-on-one meetings to provide meaningful remediation and counseling sessions. The time and expense in developing a full extra-curricular programme to provide learners with a wide range of activities to develop their skills find new friends and develop a sense of self-confidence and a positive self-image is usually beyond the resources of most schools.

One only has to travel in deep rural KwaZulu-Natal to witness the huge chasm between what many of us have experienced as an ideal school and the daily reality for most of our children in our province to recognize the long journey we still have to travel. A measure of the paucity of our school system is the degree to which the vast majority of our schools do not even envisage this element of the whole child development and battle to deliver the most basic school programme.

Change comes about usually because of discontent with one’s current situation and perhaps because the vast majority of our parents have not themselves experienced first-world education, they are not aware how disadvantaged their own children are in our current system.  Hence, they are not discontent to an extent that they will drive a revolution.  But change needs to start and transformation needs to take place speedily. The roll-out of the new “model” schools (new schools at the same level as existing ex-model C schools) provides the ideal way so illustrate to our rural populous in particular, the kind of education that is possible, including the extra-curricular programme mentioned above, and the huge growth that takes place in learners when they are afforded this type of education. Given an example of what is possible other schools will take heart and set their sights higher, parents will demand more, and authorities will be forced to run faster to fix what is now almost totally broken.  If these schools are merely fancy new buildings without the vision and professional teachers typifying our top schools, the exercise will be merely a cynical chimera designed to placate the voters but adding little to the salvation of our education system.

Tom Stokes is the Democratic Alliance Spokesperson on Education in KwaZulu-Natal.  He is a member of the province’s Education portfolio committee and holds a Master’s Degree in Education.  He is the former deputy principal of a leading boys’ school in the province.