Picture: BOIKHUTSO NTSOKO
Picture: BOIKHUTSO NTSOKO

HAIR today, school uniforms tomorrow, and sports teams or difficult exam papers the day after. The list of issues that have learners and parents’ hair stand on end is a lengthy one. Social media have become an outlet, protests a reality, and political interest and interference the norm.

The recent events at Pretoria High School for Girls and a number of other schools across the country have again turned the spotlight on school rules. The education MEC immediately ordered a revision of the rules; the national Department of Education has announced the promulgation of new regulations on codes of conduct for schools, and political parties are asking for legislation. It appears the obvious answer to the hullabaloo is yet more rules, but is that really the best option?

Granted, our country is extremely skilled in making laws, and setting regulations and rules. This not only applies to the state — over the years schools have also become competent drafters of rules and regulations. However, every bit of research points to poor discipline as one of the biggest problems in schools (and quite possibly also society at large). Adding yet more rules (including hair rules) has therefore made no contribution whatsoever to creating sound discipline in schools; in fact, it has had exactly the opposite effect.

In 2009, the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) conducted research among its member schools. The questions included what the schools viewed as the single biggest threat to quality education. They did not cite the curriculum, funding deficits or incompetent officials — no, the unequivocal answer was a lack of discipline.

The federation often receives complaints about learners who make it impossible for teachers to educate. Schools devote thousands of rand and many hours to discipline. Senior staff members are tasked with maintaining discipline, expensive computer software and systems are purchased, and more disciplinary hearings are held. Yet schools simply do not seem to be winning the battle.

The problem is that we are focused on rules and punishment as the general norm for maintaining discipline. Learners are told what they should not do (the negative), while far too little time is spent telling them what they should do (the positive).

The recent events have also clearly revealed how far removed from each other learners and leadership structures in schools really are, and have indicated that communication occurs from a position of authority (rules). Learners do not form part of discussions and as a result do not take ownership of school rules.

We will simply have to change our thinking. "Business as usual" will not resolve the hair hullabaloo. The answer lies in values as the foundation of healthy and successful schools. Our values are our own beliefs as to what is good, important or desired, which we then express through ethical conduct. Our ethics, in turn, refer to the values and standards that dictate our interactions with other people. Therefore, values and ethics are two sides of the same coin and are inextricably part of who we are and how we conduct ourselves. Every day, we face certain decisions where our own value system determines how we will act or respond. In a school setting, a shared value system will therefore form the basis of decisions on hair and appearance. It is not so much about the rule, but about the underlying value.

A value-driven approach does not mean scrapping all rules. In fact, values give meaning to rules by shifting the focus of why we do things a certain way. Taking such an approach, an issue such as hair rules is viewed through another lens, which leads to a simple question: How do I express the values through my appearance?

We would like learners to develop holistically and make decisions and act within a framework of sound values — not simply because they fear punishment should they violate a rule. Are we preparing our learners for life after school? Surely we want to produce young people who will abide by society’s rules without anyone checking whether they do. That is living "from the heart" — a value-driven life.

The school governing body is responsible for the school’s mission, and values should be at the top of this agenda. The Schools Act also provides that governing bodies are responsible for drafting schools’ codes of conduct (previously "school rules"). However, this code must be firmly based on sound values, which the entire school community must buy into, take ownership of and express every day. Of course, a value-driven approach is no quick fix; it is a long-term approach that eventually needs to become a way of life.

Prof Willem Landman, the former CEO of Ethics SA, developed a practical test for ethical conduct. It consists of eight questions:

• Are my actions lawful?

• Are my actions in line with my school’s code of conduct and policies?

• Are my actions in line with my professional standards?

• What would my ethics role model have done?

• What will my actions look like on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper?

• How do my actions make me feel?

• Am I so comfortable with my actions that I would not mind sharing it with my closest family?

• Do my actions comply with the golden standard, namely "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?

What would these events have looked like if all role players asked themselves these eight questions? Through the lens of values, the hair hullabaloo seems far from a nightmare; instead it presents us with an opportunity to invest in healthy dialogue and responsible decision-making.

Dr Deacon is deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools.