School discipline

Stabroek News
March 12, 2000

Disciplinary problems in the city's secondary schools have been in the news this year. The most recent case involves North Georgetown, where the teachers went on strike the Friday before last to register a protest against the revocation of a decision to suspend a group of students. The group included three whom it was alleged had broken and entered a classroom, and another who had allegedly punctured the tyre on a teacher's vehicle. The last mentioned is nineteen-years-old, had been before the courts for an offence and allegedly had ignited a firecracker last Christmas which damaged a wall in the school building.

The staff at the school told the Stabroek News that from time to time students had threatened them, and on one occasion a third former had pulled a knife on another third former. Cutlasses, butcher's knives, pellet guns and other implements which could be classed as weapons, had been taken away from students in the past, teachers said.

After the school suspended the students, the Ministry of Education rescinded the suspension, but to date, this newspaper has been unable to establish from the relevant officials what the rationale behind this decision was. It is not the first time that the Ministry has seen fit to reverse a suspension order; this year too, it revoked a Queen's College decision to suspend some students on the grounds that it had been procedurally incorrect.

While the behaviour of Guyanese students does not yet approximate to that of their counterparts in the decaying inner cities of the industrialized world, the local urban schools are nevertheless beginning to experience the kind of disciplinary problems which belong to that world. Where North Georgetown in particular is concerned, the situation is not helped by overcrowding, where a school built to accommodate 600 or 700 pupils now has in excess of 1,200.

In the old days the schools were unequivocally in charge of discipline, and invariably received the support of parents who held teachers in high esteem. There was no room for a student to play off one authority figure against another, although the methods of correction often employed were fairly brutal. While we can do without the excesses, we certainly cannot do without the discipline. It is almost a truism to say that good teaching cannot occur unless there is a proper disciplinary framework. Any group exceeding about twelve members, ceases to be an agglomeration of individuals, and becomes a unit with its own character. Nothing will be learnt in a classroom situation if that unit is in control rather than the teacher.

Students who are not subject to the larger disciplinary framework, who believe that their parents are rich enough, important enough or aggressive enough to get them off anything, who feel that the teachers and headmistresses/masters are not the ultimate authorities in their schools, will behave delinquently, and perhaps even dangerously. Abroad students sometimes have assaulted teachers, and it is not unknown for them to have been killed.

Where the particular case of the North Georgetown teachers is concerned, in the absence of any rejoinder from the Ministry, they would appear to have very good cause for complaint. Prima facie it sounds as if hooliganism has raised its head in their school, and that the disciplinary atmosphere is not conducive to learning.

Headteachers need to be able to apply sanctions such as suspension, without having to second-guess the Ministry of Education all the time, and without living in fear of their decisions being reversed. The recent pattern of Ministry interference in disciplinary matters is not a healthy trend. It undermines the authority of a headteacher and his or her staff, and tends to exacerbate the problem of indiscipline in the long term, rather than alleviate it. Teachers will make mistakes sometimes in correcting children, but unless some gross miscarriage has occurred in some very sensitive instance, the Ministry of Education should strenuously resist the temptation to overturn the decisions of the school authorities. Discipline should be a matter for the school, not some ministry official.

For their part, the staff of our educational institutions have probably to engage parents in discussions about discipline, perhaps within the framework of the Parent Teacher Associations. They have to agree on guidelines, and then they have to apply them systematically. No student should be able to hold a school to ransom because his/her parents can put pressure on Ministry officials.