Schools of learning or schools of fashion?
This columnist happens to have been visiting several no-fee schools in poor communities in the last fortnight. They were chosen by their better-than-average matric pass rates, and the idea was to find out the secrets of their success. Many of the pupils in these schools rely on their school for their main meal of the day. Many of the parents are illiterate. Some of the pupils live by themselves.
Without any prompting, four of the principals of the schools identified school dress as one of the keys to success. Two of them did so before the recent mini rebellion at a Pretoria high school over whether or not pupils should be allowed to wear "skinny pants". Two of them also referred to the controversy over artificial hair "extensions" in the form of "dreadlocks" at another Pretoria school last year.
Pupils at a public high school in a West Rand township visited two weeks ago were inspected by a "patroller" as they entered through the school gates. The headmistress explained that this was to ensure that they did not wear "branded clothing" instead of the school uniform, which included ties on boys. Pupils who wore such clothing tended to show off, which she did not think appropriate when 40% of all the pupils lived in shacks. These "show-offs" also tended to be more rebellious.
The principal of an independent secondary school in Orange Farm which charges minimal fees was equally emphatic that uniforms helped maintain discipline. When pupils made a fuss about trousers or fought for fancy hairstyles appropriate for "dancing in nightclubs", they were forgetting that the main aim of the school was education. There was far too much emphasis in South Africa on the rights of pupils, and too little on their obligation to study, this headmaster said.
The headmistress of a high school in the North West province visited last week said uniforms were "very, very, very important". Many of the pupils in this school lived in shacks or RDP houses or on farms. Until the North West education department provided buses, pupils living on farms could not afford to come to extra classes on Saturdays.