School discipline

Stabroek News
December 5, 1999

Times have changed, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the matter of school discipline, or rather, indiscipline. The heady days when a teacher's word was second only to the Almighty's and big boys trembled as they stood in front of the headmaster's desk will never come again. The education system is partly at fault for the breakdown in discipline, but so too are the parents, and, in a sense, the society at large. Children's behaviour in school has changed because society itself has changed.

Thirty years ago one of the most heinous crimes which anyone could conceive of a secondary pupil committing on school premises was smoking (as in tobacco) in the school toilet. Nowadays the sins of the fathers and mothers are copied by their children, and very adult sins those are. Three decades ago drugs were not a major problem in Guyana, parents placed more emphasis on education than easy money - although the assumption was that a good education would make one comfortable in life - and parents also worked with teachers to try and ensure that their children both behaved in school and learnt in school. In addition, truant officers scoured the cinemas and street corners to waylay escapees and return them to the educational fold. The downside of these more orderly arrangements was that corporal punishment, which in some cases constituted brutality, was the preferred mode of discipline.

The world is now a far more complex place than it was then, and the dangers which lurk for the younger generation have multiplied immeasurably. Young people grow up in amputated, dysfunctional families, where economic hardship grinds down the members. Some have to sell on the street until late in the night, and if they do go to school their undernourished bodies are unable to generate enough energy for serious school work. Lacking sustained discipline at home, they are averse to it at school, and their parents are as likely to threaten a teacher as co-operate with him or her in controlling their offspring in the classroom. In addition, youngsters are conditioned in a society whose values revolve around the acquisition of money, however obtained. Why slog for years in school to achieve who knows what, when the illiterate dude next door can drive a fast car bought with the apparently effortless 'earnings' from cocaine deals? There is nothing more disruptive in a classroom than a child who does not want to learn and does not see the point of doing so.

And then there are the schools themselves. The system is no longer geared to keep track of students as it once did, and some of the teachers, whose professional status has been undermined since Burnham's day, are lacking in the qualities which would encourage respect in their pupils. In some cases whole classes go unsupervised for long periods either because there is no teacher, or the teacher does not go to teach. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that disciplining students guilty of quite serious offences is really not done by the school, but by the bureaucracy - i.e. the Ministry of Education. That is a far from ideal situation, because students know that the headteacher is not the ultimate authority in his or her school and will operate accordingly. Even where minor infractions are concerned, in many of the schools there simply is no disciplinary framework.

And what is to be done about it? In a general sense, of course, the school rules always have to be clear, and their application has to be firm and consistent. Ideally too, punishment for an infringement should not be delayed for too long. But then those are things which most headteachers know already, even if the Ministry does not always appear to. Beyond that, for the time being at least, the problem of indiscipline probably has to be tackled school by school.

While all schools with secondary age pupils will face difficulties, the extent of those difficulties, and sometimes their character will vary. In addition, the disciplinary framework is better in some schools than in others. A school like St Rose's, for example, which was in the news last week, seems to be moving towards its own arrangements for dealing with disciplinary questions, and those arrangements will involve downgrading the involvement of the Ministry of Education. In ideal circumstances, that should be the case with all schools, provided the disciplinary committees, or whatever, operate according to clearly defined guidelines.

As in the case of St Rose's, the Parent-Teachers Associations have to become involved in more than just fund-raising; they have to have a more direct input into the children's education. And both the PTA's and the staff of schools have also to inaugurate a campaign to reach those parents who never attend PTA meetings, and whose children are falling behind, or are presenting the teachers with disciplinary problems. Bringing the parents into the educational process has worked in other places, and there is no reason why it should not work here.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples