Friday, June 18, 2004

TT: The final word on the Bacchus affair

Eristic” is my favourite obscure word: usually applied to debate, it means “aimed at winning rather than at reaching the truth”. This kind of attitude was well-displayed by the haste with which armed policemen were dispatched week before last to the San Fernando Secondary Comprehensive School to quell a students’ protest. The protest, sparked by the impending transfer of Gene Bacchus, the school’s acting principal, revealed nearly everything that is wrong with our education system: and the fault, as the dear brutes in authority proved, lay not with the children but with the adults. First of all, the fact that someone called the police showed the school administration’s incompetence. Second of all, the fact that the police found it necessary to arrive with sub-machine guns showed exactly why police officers should never be used to discipline children. And that was just the start, with the dotishness continuing to be displayed by the higher authorities.

“The Ministry’s decision is to counsel the pupils so they will fully appreciate how the system works,” said the inappropriately-named PR officer Hilton Braveboy. Yeah, well don’t waste time: the students learned exactly how the system works the minute armed policemen arrived. Then there was sociologist Dr Ramesh Deosaran, playing to the cameras at a meeting between education officials and a parliamentary Joint Select Committee which he chairs. “We can’t have children dictating who they want for principal,” said Deosaran, in that gentleman-with-constipation tone he usually adopts. But three years ago Deosaran had absolutely no problem with dictatorship when he accepted a post as Independent Senator during the 18-18 deadlock. Apparently, even in the absence of consultation, it is wrong for students to protest over a matter that affects them. But it’s okay for a non-elected government to spend public funds, including paying the salaries of Independent Senators who have nothing to do.

And then there was the Teaching Service Commission which, in an attempt to deflect criticism for its handling of the transfer of the acting principal, revealed that Mr Bacchus had failed his interview. In other words, he has the academic qualifications, but in the judgement of the interviewers he lacked certain qualities. What these qualities might be the TSC spokesperson didn’t say, apparently content with innuendo. But, unless he engineered the whole protest himself, the fact that Mr. Bacchus was able to impress the students in such a short time implies that the TSC missed something crucial about the man’s effectiveness as an educator. I also find it significant that no commentator, including those who are always talking about the need to reform the education system, found anything positive to say about the students. Instead, the focus has been on the misspelled signs and the racial comments some of them allegedly made. But, to my mind, the misspelling emphasises the school’s need for good leadership, while the racial comments are to be expected since that is what they hear from adults in political contexts. Human beings are naturally inclined to bigotry: a good education system would teach children to defy such societal norms.

But, despite all the talk about educational reforms, the hypocritical adults in charge of this place don’t really want changes that would upset the status quo. Surely some credit must go to the students for having the initiative and the courage to organise themselves to make their wishes known. And don’t tell me that the students should instead have written a letter or formed a delegation: the fact that policemen were called out, the comment about Mr Bacchus by the TSC, the gobbledygook from the Education Ministry — all this tells us exactly how such a letter or delegation would have been treated. No, the SFCS students understand our culture and they knew that the only way to draw attention to their cause was to have a protest demonstration. Our leaders, by habitually treating rational and civilised approaches with contempt, have made it so.

So, when we talk about the problem of a lack of discipline in schools, we must lay the fault right where it belongs: not with the students, but with the adults who are in charge of our education system. For, if children were properly educated, so they wouldn’t misspell simple words like “trouble” or make racial comments, then discipline would not be a problem....

...In the medium-term, however, one of the best strategies for maintaining school discipline at secondary level is to set up a Discipline Council, which is made up of students and teachers.

In this model, offences are divided into three levels, ranging from mild to serious. Teachers deal directly with Level One transgressions, while vice-principals or deans deal with Level Two incidents. Level Three offences — such as fighting, bullying, vandalism, cheating, non-attendance, recurrent defiance of authority — go before the council. “The student’s conduct is analysed, and all the people involved in an incident — including teachers — find their behaviour scrutinised,” explains pedagogy expert Michael Gurian. “Generally the student is required by a vote of peers to make redress (and is sometimes suspended). Occasionally, a teacher’s behaviour is found wanting and the incident is seen in this light.” Unfortunately, implementing this kind of system requires respect for youths and a democratic mindset: both of which are clearly beyond the majority of persons who come to power in this place.

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