Schools of learning or schools of fashion?
This columnist happens to have been visiting several no-fee schools in poor communities within the last fortnight. They were chosen by their better-than-average matric pass rates, and the concept was to search out out the secrets of their success. Lots of the pupils in these schools rely on their school for his or her main meal of the day. Many of the parents are illiterate. A few of the pupils live by themselves.
Without any prompting, four of the principals of the schools identified school dress as one of many keys to success. Two of them did so before the recent mini rebellion at a Pretoria highschool over whether or not pupils ought to be allowed to wear “skinny pants”. Two of them also referred to the controversy over artificial hair “extensions” within the form of “dreadlocks” at another Pretoria school last year.
Pupils at a public highschool 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 make sure that they didn’t wear “branded clothing” instead of the college uniform, which included ties on boys. Pupils who wore such clothing tended to showcase, which she didn’t think appropriate when 40% of all of 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 principle aim of the college was education. There was far a lot emphasis in South Africa on the rights of pupils, and too little on their obligation to check, this headmaster said.
The headmistress of a high school within the North West province visited last week said uniforms were “very, very, essential”. Many of the pupils on this school lived in shacks or RDP houses or on farms. Until the North West education department provided buses, pupils living on farms couldn’t afford to come back to extra classes on Saturdays.
Uniforms helped to “make all of them feel the identical”. The headmistress added, “We specify ordinary black school shoes, and is not going to allow fashionable shoes”. Even poor pupils sometimes came to highschool in “takkies” costing R1 800, while other poor children could not afford any shoes. She said she had fought to stop the wearing of takkies. She was still fighting to stop the wearing of fashionable trousers short enough to exhibit socks.
This headmistress also prohibited dreadlocks and other “expensive” extensions. Girls with long hair needed to tie it up in a bun. Baseball caps were prohibited. Pupils needed to concentrate on their work, not inspect one another’s clothing or hairstyles. She added that official policy was that uniforms had to be worn, but that schools could choose their very own.
A fourth principal, who runs an independent school adjoining a Johannesburg township,
said her “boys should be boys” with normal hairstyles. Girls weren’t allowed to wear earrings or hair extensions. When there was a demand from some of the pupils to be allowed to wear hair extensions, she called parents to a gathering. They pointed out that they struggled to pay R480 a year in fees, and were certainly not willing to pay for extensions.
That put the matter to rest, said this headmistress, and hairstyles would not be discussed again.
Regulations about dress and hairstyles have led to accusations of racism by a number of the pupils in mixed schools, never mind parents and journalists and politicians desperate to sniff out racism wherever they will. Other pupils claim that school uniforms are a remnant of apartheid and a violation of human rights.