The two-month interregnum between the conclusion of one school year and the beginning of another usually finds the education sector trying to effect repairs and renovation to defective schoolhouses so that at the start of the new academic year we would at least have upgraded, however modestly, the quality of those spaces in which the state delivers education.
In some instances the repairs and renovation are repetitive and near pointless pursuits. The fact is that some of our school buildings are long past their best days. Some of them have been the cause of accidents and injuries. Rotting stairways, leaking roofs and toilet facilities that pose serious health hazards always seem to occur at state-run schools in various parts of the country and it is simply not enough for the Ministry of Education to state that it cannot afford corrective measures when life and limb might be at stake.
There are other chronic problems that have gone un-remedied for lengthy periods, like furniture shortages that create acute inconvenience for children and teachers alike. With hindsight, it is nothing short of amazing that children and teachers have had to endure these inconveniences for years and, moreover, that there appears to be no end to these types of problems.
There are other even more debilitating difficulties confronting our education system. We are, it seems, in the throes of a dangerous shift in the ‘balance of authority’ between school and their charges. It is a shift that is manifested in a fierce ‘power struggle’ between the legitimate authorities and out-of-control children using violence to chisel the school system to suit their own preferences, and if the situation may not yet have reached a point of total takeover, there is certainly no persuasive evidence that the authorities are winning the war.
Teachers’ protests persist. Among other things they are concerned about their own vulnerability, chastened as they are by the cases of colleagues who have been victims of verbal and physical attacks. As a consequence, some of them readily admit to sometimes looking the other way when student indiscretions occur.
Most damaging to the education system, we believe, is the seeming loss of passion for the profession among teachers with whom we have spoken and who want the Ministry of Education to know that they feel both unprotected from and intimidated by violent schoolchildren. For them, the phenomenon of violent charges has been added to pre-existing poor working conditions, paltry material rewards and their near complete loss of authority and status which they and their profession, respectively, have had to endure over many years.
Much of the fault lies with the authorities. Among the areas in which it has been decidedly neglectful are in the retention of dilapidated schoolhouses that are past repairs and renovation; the retention of a disciplinary manual that has simply not kept pace with the contemporary challenges and the inexcusable failure of the state to properly reward the nation’s teachers. These three deficiencies alone have contributed considerably to the erosion of our education system.
When loss of teacher morale, authority and appetite for teaching occur, we come perilously close to a dysfunctional education system since, by definition, the effective delivery of education – which is the central purpose of an education system ‒ cannot take place in an environment in which teachers are intimidated and apprehensive, where their authority is compromised and where their material needs are, in large measure, unmet; so that whatever other inputs are made into the sector, these are unlikely to bear a great deal of fruit if teacher morale continues to decline as indeed it surely will if the Ministry of Education continues to fail to make their conditions of work – including the creation of safer spaces – more bearable.
The Ministry of Education’s continued failure to effectively embrace parents as partners in the quest to bring school-related violence under control in ways that go well beyond the frequently ineffective routine of the Parent/Teacher Association (PTA) is, we believe, largely responsible for its lack of any significant headway in addressing the problem of violent schoolchildren. We have argued – on more than one previous occasion for a contract between parents and schools in the matter of their children that requires both sides to accept specific kinds of responsibilities and to become strictly accountable for ensuring that those responsibilities are pursued with the utmost seriousness. It is a commonsense approach that necessitates a level of engagement between the parent and the school that goes way beyond what is customarily, often misleadingly described as public consultations. More than that, these engagements must be thoroughly sustainable and rooted in the principle of genuine discourse.
Restoring the confidence and, by extension, the control of the teacher is an indispensible precursor to repairing the various other defects in our education system. That cannot be accomplished unless the dysfunctional environment resulting from violence among schoolchildren and in schools is tackled decisively. The Ministry of Education can do worse than commit itself to tackling the problem with a far greater sense of determination in the new school year.