Recent incidents of indiscipline and violence in schools have again shone a spotlight on the question of discipline, or lack thereof, in schools. Many commentators lament the banning of corporal punishment by quoting the dated adage “spare the rod and spoil the child”.
Proponents of corporal punishment argue that removing this form of punishment in schools has eroded authority and subsequently led to ill-discipline. Caning was banned about 20 years ago. Prior to its banning, corporal punishment was one of the key grievances of the Congress of South African Students in the 1980s.
According to the Bill of Rights, corporal punishment is inconsistent with human rights practices. It had become a blunt instrument and a panacea for all the “ills” afflicting schools. It was applied indiscriminately and, in some instances, violently for anything vaguely resembling indiscipline.
In some cases, pupils with learning difficulties were subjected to repeated and cruel physical punishment that never addressed their problems. Schoolchildren who arrived late for classes, or whose parents failed to pay school fees, were also punished, so many simply stayed at home.
Despite such cruel and arbitrary punishment, it is intriguing that some who were at school when corporal punishment was practised come up with statements such as: “I made it today because of corporal punishment at school.” They argue that, since its banning 20 years ago, discipline has collapsed in most schools.
Despite corporal punishment being illegal in schools, the General Household Survey of 2017 found that incidents of corporal punishment were recorded in all provinces, although the numbers are much lower than in the 2015 survey.
That violence is part of corporal punishment is often forgotten by the proponents of this argument. It has unintended consequences, such as increasing dropout rates and breeding more violence.
Discipline in schools is about authority and leadership. It is highly unlikely — with or without corporal punishment — that a school will achieve any form of discipline if these qualities are lacking.
It is also misleading to argue that there are no forms of discipline in schools. The schools’ codes of conduct have several punishments for transgressions by pupils, the most extreme form being expulsion.
Each year, the department of education conducts hearings in terms of section 58(b) of the South African Schools Act, as amended, to deal with underperforming schools. One of the major findings from these hearings is that most schools that underperform have discipline issues. Underperformance is linked to in-fighting among teachers, competition for posts, teachers arriving late for classes and absconding, among other issues. Underperformance is directly correlated to lack of authority from those entrusted with the management of schools.
The crux of the argument advanced in this article is to call for a multipronged strategy — informed by research — to combat violence and crime in schools. Indiscipline and violence in schools are not isolated from the neighbourhoods where they are located. Strengthening moral codes, crime prevention and detection as well as punishment should take a broader perspective to address both in-school indiscipline, violence and crime as well as factors leading to crime in the neighbourhood.
Authority must be restored in schools and classrooms. Teachers, like priests, are citizens of good standing, and how they behave in society matters a great deal. Restoring authority starts with individual self-respect. For teachers, this means coming to school early, timely marking of scripts, leaving only after all the pupils have left and not fighting in front of schoolchildren.
Let us be bold and accept our responsibility for instilling discipline and morality in our children. Let us mend society and not break it. Breaking pupils is breaking future generations.
Makubetse Sekhonyane, Oupa Bodibe and Enoch Mchiza-Mkhize work for the Gauteng department of education. These are their own views