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Pupils deserve applause for demanding a just school system

“Black hair” has sparked a new racism row at a top South African school. Yves Herman/Reuters

One of South Africa’s top public schools, Pretoria Girls High is making headlines after it emerged that black pupils were being ordered to chemically straighten their hair. They also allege that they’re accused of “conspiring” when they gather in groups. Professor Yusuf Sayed unpacks the issue of discrimination at schools and how social cohesion can be improved in these spaces.

Some people have responded to this controversy by suggesting that pupils must abide by the school rules which call for neatly kept hair. Do they have a point?

It’s obvious and understandable that when rules and codes of conduct are consensually developed, democratically agreed and just, they should be upheld. In this instance, however, a middle-class normativity has in effect – and perhaps by intent – sought to exclude and marginalise the “other”.

Justifiable difference must be supported and encouraged – not delegitimated as occurred in this instance. Difference that is substantive, continually subjected to engagement and reflection, and that is contextually located and applied is the foundation of durable and just inclusion.

So it’s perfectly understandable that students have asserted their voices to be heard and challenged a “rule” that effectively de-legitimates their being. They should be applauded. The kind of critical thinking displayed by these young persons is what should be cherished and nurtured in education. Schools, like all spheres, must be democratic and inclusive in both intent and practice.

Education needs to adapt and evolve in changing circumstances and conditions as their students’ demographic composition shifts. Invoking tradition is puerile (indeed anti-educational) when tradition causes pain and hurt rather than understanding, tolerance and acceptance. If schools are to foster the democratic ethos post-apartheid South Africa hopes to nurture, they must be places where rules are subject to question and changed as may be required.

How much of a problem would you say racism and other forms of discrimination are at South Africa’s schools today?

Forms of discrimination in education aren’t new. They reflect the unfortunate continuation of a legacy of racial and social exclusion rooted in the apartheid era.

But attention hasn’t been paid to it partly because racism and discrimination is not just overt but also covert. Covert discrimination is particularly insidious and inscribed in schools’ everyday practices. These then become normalised.

This doesn’t mean discrimination is not endemic, structural and inscribed in institutional cultures and practices. For example, the bullying and discrimination that LGBTIQ learners experience is often not recognised or spoken about. The alienation from teaching and learning of children from poor backgrounds in wealthy schools and in schools generally is no less a problem.

Forms of discrimination in schools also cut across rich and poor quintile schools, fee and non-fee paying schools, and rural and urban located schools. Most of South Africa’s learners are in racially homogenous, poorly resourced and under performing schools. This is a problem of structural forms of inequity and discrimination.

In this, school governing bodies should be key spaces for democratic participation. But the danger in South Africa is that some of these bodies are often captured to serve wealthy, narrow, self-interested groups of parents. Their frame of reference is exclusive rather than inclusive and they often act with impunity. Inequality of class is a problem as much as overt forms of racism.

Given that the problem doesn’t only affect one segment of schooling in South Africa, any responses should be systemic – not just episodic. It will take more than formal policies and pieces of legislation, though these are important. There also needs to be an ongoing process of support and education for school leaders, teachers and learners.

Whose responsibility is it to make schools more welcoming and genuinely diverse?

Creating social cohesion is everyone’s responsibility. It requires political will, a shared consensus and participation in processes that may be distinctly uncomfortable.

Political will is demonstrated through leadership that prioritises achieving social cohesion which changes unequal, system wide relationships of power and is focused on improving education quality. Such leadership also needs to work across government and in provincial and national education departments. This will allow for the development of proactive educational strategies that favour the marginalised.

But none of this will work without a shared consensus and participation. Every stakeholder across the education system and beyond must be committed to social cohesion. Forums for dialogue and consultative round tables are vital to create a robust policy framework that includes a detailed, adequately funded implementation plan.

Mutual trust underpins this whole process. Without it, no policies or action plans will matter. Individuals and groups need to trust each other and hold each other to account for agreed actions. This is a pre-condition for realising a transformative social justice agenda.

What does a genuinely socially cohesive school environment look like?

It’s one in which social cohesion is evidenced in the curriculum, the classroom and in governance structures.

When it comes to teaching and learning, a socially cohesive approach will recognise difference but not to the extent that such difference itself becomes a source of division and differentiation between social groups. It will also encompass teaching approaches that enable students to confront their histories, backgrounds and pasts. It should simultaneously give them hope for the future.

In socially cohesive schools, teachers listen to learners and place them at the centre. They seek consciously to support all learners irrespective of their social backgrounds.

On the governance side, a socially cohesive school will promote democratic participation and engagement across the board. This involves the members of the school, other schools and the local community.

Such schools develop active strategies to provide contact as starting points for breaking down racial and other barriers.

These schools actively affirm and enact rights, including those enshrined in the country’s constitution. More fundamentally, it’s about realising rights through daily practices and the ways that teachers behave and teach. Learners are given the space to relate to each other. Schools must affirm the rights of refugees and migrants who are often silent, and silenced, in discourses about social cohesion.

All of this work must be founded on the guiding principles of a social justice agenda. This seeks to actively redress an unequal past whilst laying the markers for a future which is equitable, tolerant and mindful of difference.

Your research suggests that teachers can be real change-makers. What can individual teachers do if school rules don’t shift?

Teachers work and teach within institutions and structures which can both enable and hinder their ability to act in realising a progressive agenda of social change.

But teachers do have agency. They are neither victims nor perpetrators. They are not simply the solution or only the problem. So they have a responsibility as professionals to ensure that they challenge and don’t comply with rules which humiliate and demean learners, and which impact adversely on learning.

Individual teachers can do a great deal. They can challenge these rules through school governing bodies which include teacher representatives or through their representative associations and organisations like unions. To do all of this, as we’ve argued, they need policy direction, support and training.

It will take a far more radical conception of social cohesion to help a country like South Africa realise social justice.

Such an approach should recognise how violence and conflict is mediated through widely different contexts, which themselves reflect broader societal norms and values, and complex histories of violence within which teachers are located. It’s crucial to animate and invigorate a social justice, social cohesion transformation agenda for education.

Author’s note: I am grateful to my colleagues Azeem Badroodien, Yunus Omar and Zahraa McDonald for their contribution to this article.

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