Schools must take the long walk of reform

A brilliant former music teacher at my high school, Graeme College Boys’ High, was hounded out because he publicly criticised the school for not keeping boys safe. A video had surfaced in the mid-1990s of younger boys being physically attacked by older boys in the school hostel.

The teacher, rightly so, remarked on the institutional failure of the school to keep the boys safe. How on earth could that kind of behaviour have happened routinely in the school hostel without the hostel staff being aware of it? Either through overt encouragement of such action or deliberately turning a blind eye, the school had failed the boys.

For merely uttering this pedestrian viewpoint on the letters pages of a newspaper, which should have been accepted as a trite truth, many staff members ganged up against him, making it impossible for him stay on. He resigned.

Those of us who were being taught music and English by him lost a great and courageous teacher. A school down the road now benefits from his brilliance. Too many staff members at my school erroneously preferred to encourage silence rather than to break the silence. The reputation of the school was expressly regarded as more important than the human rights of children.

That, sadly, is the reality at way too many schools. Look at the decades of abuse — physical, sexual, psychological and verbal, among other forms — that pupils experienced at Parktown Boys’ High School, which, to this day, refuses to take unambiguous responsibility for failing to create a safe and healthy space for the development of children. The school is morally complicit. It must do right by the victims and say, in clear terms, sorry, and accept blame, and begin a meaningful process of restitution and healing.

Currently, a former water polo coach at the school is facing hundreds of charges, including of attempted murder, and the most recent testimony from some of the survivors include horrific accounts of how he had allegedly laughed while he had choked them to the point where some of them lost consciousness for up to 10 seconds.

It is not surprising to know that the alleged criminal was himself reportedly a victim of abuse at the same institution. Violence begets violence. Victims, in turn, very often become perpetrators.

Not all victims lash out at others,but they can suffer irreparable psychological damage. One mother of a former Parktown Boys’ High School pupil who had been a victim of abuse at the school called my radio show recently. She spoke of the heartache of having to come to terms with a son who is now dead. He died of suicide. She has no doubt that the trauma he endured was the catalyst. Life became too much for him.

The culture of silence often means that many of these victims keep their trauma to themselves. Our schools encourage silence because they are more obsessed with keeping up appearances than with healing.

Look at how slow St John’s College was to deal with racism at the school. It took enormous public pressure and mobilisation by a minority of progressive former pupils and some parents to get the school to begin to admit that its institutional norms and culture needed critical interrogation, and that some teachers do not belong on the premises because of their oppressive and regressive attitudes and actions.

The jury is out whether the school has begun to develop a truly inclusive and safe space or whether it is business as usual now that the media attention is gone.

Meanwhile, a teacher at Westville Girls’ High School resigned after it emerged that she had hurled racist abuse at pupils, including the use of the k-word.

These are, of course, just some of the incidents that have come to light. There is now almost daily videos surfacing on social media of children bullying other children, teachers beating children and children beating teachers.

Our schools are not safe and healthy places where we are developing citizens imbued with the constitutional values we signed up for in 1996.

What is going on in our schools and what can we do about the crises?

The overarching reality is one that might depress us because it is so big. Our schools are filled with children and adults who are broken because they come from and are located in a society that is broken. Schools, just like tertiary institutions, are not located outside the fault lines of society.

The first step is for us to disabuse ourselves of the myth that our educational institutions are spaces to which our children can escape. Our schools do not provide respite from the traumas of society. Schools reflect the society that births the children and adults who occupy the school premises.

So, our schools, just like our tertiary institutions, will never be truly healthy and productive places until we have made significant progress in dealing with macro-realities in society such as gratuitous acts of violence (a high number), economic inequalities and high levels of poverty, which in turn lead to things such as antisocial behaviour, loss of self-esteem and interpersonal conflict.

This influences what happens in our schools because experiences such as exposure to violence in our homes and in our communities manifest themselves in the ways in which staff members and pupils behave in the school grounds. Our schools are in crisis because our society itself is in crisis.

That said, we cannot afford to adopt a defeatist attitude because too much is at stake. If we do not improve the quality of experiences of our children in our schools, then we cannot be surprised that the young adults we release from our schooling system are disasters waiting to happen.

One essay cannot exhaust a conversation about what we might do. Let me just outline, in broad terms, one approach.

Many educational experts have written, with empirical data at hand, about the factors that allow some under-resourced schools to do well despite inequities in education. We know, for example, that excellent leadership, such as a top-class principal, can be almost more important than whether the school is perfectly resourced.

However, this optimistic analysis, which raises the question “Why do some poorly resourced schools produce excellent pupils?”, is useful but potentially misguided. We should celebrate schools that do well against all odds but there is no substitute for addressing the material structural inequities within our schooling system.

For as long as schools in townships and in the rural areas typically have no libraries, science and computer labs, a full staff complement, decent ablution facilities, textbooks and, yes, committed teachers and school leadership and governing structures that centre the interests of pupils, under-resourced schools will always struggle to give society matriculants who are ready for the next phase of their lives.

There is a criminal lack of political will to ensure that the agreed norms and standards for what counts as adequate schooling facilities are met.

Now, tell me, where on earth is the space to talk about “extras” like “institutional norms and culture” or “hidden curricula” in our poorer schools when we are stuck on getting infrastructure right? How can we even talk about what it means to teach boys healthier masculinities in our poor schools when the priorities are as basic as fighting for proper sanitation?

We have to eliminate the resource inequalities so we can focus more fully on the “softer” stuff, such as talk of value-laden pedagogy.

As for well-resourced schools, such as former model C schools and private schools, the most important first step is for many of these to accept that they are unhealthy places. They may look beautiful from the outside but everything from initiation to outright sexual and physical abuse means that they often produce school leavers who are scarred, even if they manage to get good grades, end up at university and slot into corporate South Africa.

There is no point in mapping out what it means to rethink the norms and cultures in our suburban schools as long as too many people are obsessed with pretending that all is well in these schools.

They are often breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, racism and hyper-competitiveness, stunting any moral development or regard for the welfare of fellow citizens. Most definitely there is also very little concern for servant leadership, let alone a healthy interrogation of our unearned class privileges and how we ended up being the lucky ones in a world of injustice.

I have turned down countless invitations to address some of these issues at schools that I used to admire because too many of our wealthier schools are run by people who do not give a genuine damn about reform, although they sometimes want to be seen to be having these conversations.

I will only take a school’s commitment to re-imagining its own norms and cultural tropes seriously if they are prepared to walk a long journey of institutional reform rather than enduring a once-off, provocative talk from some specialist in racism or patriarchy.

Do better. Commit to doing the hard work.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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