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Diversity is one of the backbones of our Constitution — it must be cultivated in schools

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is the Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Education Faculty at the University of Stellenbosch.

Often the focus in our schools is so much on exams that few opportunities are created for learners of different sexual orientations and cultural backgrounds to cultivate an appreciation for each other’s differences. Why are schools, for instance, allowed to close on Ascension Day, while the same allowance is not made for special days observed by Muslim learners?

A school principal phoned me one Friday when I was still circuit manager. He was very upset and wanted to know what he should do about a boy who refused to write a test after school. On hearing the name of the child, I informed the principal that the boy was Muslim, and that, like all Muslim men, he had to go to mosque on Friday afternoons.

I also remember the day the matrics had to write the maths paper on Eid. Imagine if, as a Christian, your child had to write mathematics on Christmas Day! Although the problem was addressed thereafter, the question remains: How could a school principal and an education department make such an error in these times? The answer is simple: diversity is prominent in our Constitution, schools’ and universities’ codes of conduct, and the mission statements of companies and organisations. But we don’t live it. We neither model it to our children, nor do we teach this in our schools — although it is required.

Let us consider the policy document. In the Caps (Curriculum Assessment and Policy Statement) the following aspects are mentioned as some of the principles on which our education system is based: social transformation and justice, appreciation for indigenous knowledge systems and sensitivity to diversity issues such as gender, religion and disabilities.

Nevertheless, conflict has occurred in schools countrywide, mostly due to a lack of sensitivity to the abovementioned diversity issues. At a Cape Town school, learners protested to create awareness for the LGBTQI+ community. A school in Witbank had to close its doors after parents came to blows over alleged racism. And at two private schools, one in the Cape and one in Johannesburg, the governing body had to apologise to learners because the school had not done enough to acknowledge the diversity of its learners. One placard especially caught my eye: “Teachers, please learn to pronounce my name.” This is an appeal from a child in search of acknowledgement.

Some schools emphasise academic achievement to such an extent that they forget that learners have unique needs. Sometimes learners feel like strangers in their own school. Often the focus is so much on exams that few opportunities are created for learners of different sexual orientations and cultural backgrounds to cultivate an appreciation of each other’s differences. Why are schools, for instance, allowed to close on Ascension Day, while the same allowance is not made for special days observed by Muslim learners?

Tuition of a relevant curriculum and preparation for exams is important. No one denies that. That is why Caps also emphasises active critical learning, skills, knowledge, progression and quality tuition. This must, however, never occur at the cost of learners’ human dignity. Governing bodies must initiate change, instead of waiting for the government to enforce new measures, as the Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi has warned already.

Children do what their parents do. Thus, parents have a responsibility to model the right attitude to children. And schools have a responsibility to teach these values. It is not something Dr Google can help you with. DM

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