The violence involving youth and children in our schools is reaching unprecedented levels. As this happens society is slipping into panic and desperation mode.
The suggestion that teachers should be allowed to carry guns in schools, ridiculous as it is, confirms the state of desperation and helplessness in our society. Society has not missed the opportunity to point fingers. The abolition of corporal punishment in schools has been blamed for this sad state of affairs.
It appears that some people believe that respect is earned from children through fear. They appear to confuse consequence management with fear induced through violence.
It is the same argument that the death penalty would induce a sense of fear in criminals and therefore lead to the reduction of violent crimes.
A school is supposed to be a home away from home. The teachers and other staff in the schools are supposed to be another set of parents when children are at school. In law they are called in loco parentis, meaning they are the parents when the children are with them.
Children do not chose their homes. It is the parents who chose the home for them. Parents set and determine the rules because they determine how they want to bring up their children.
They determine the values and the approach of bringing up the children. In a constitutional state, there is a third parent whose primary responsibility is to ensure that the children are protected and supported.
This constitutional obligation is based on the constitutional injunction to give effect to the human rights of children.
It is for this reason that laws are made to regulate the relationships parents and society have with children in the same way that laws are made to regulate relationships between citizens.
The bigger scheme of things is such that the interests of children come first in any decisions and actions taken which involve children.
While children are part of the broader society and are affected by what happens in their communities, their status as special citizens means that they enjoy a higher level of entitlement than everyone else.
In essence in any given situation, matters involving children must always take priority. Education is one such matter. Often when communities are unhappy, the education of children is affected.
The same is to be said when crime gets out of control in communities. It becomes more complex when children are themselves the perpetrators of crime as is becoming the trend in our schools.
Some people may argue that it is not possible to divorce the socio-economic problems from children and that these factors will continue to affect children and shape how they behave.
This may be so but there is another side of this coin which is that children must be insulated from the effects of these adverse socio-economic factors. The obvious question is how can this is to happen?
Colin Powell has this to say about violence: “Children need to get a high quality of education, avoid violence and the criminal justice system, and gain jobs.
"But they deserve more. We want them to learn not only reading and maths but fairness, caring, self-respect, family commitment and civic duty.” Fairness, caring, self-respect and civic duty are core values that every child must learn.
These values shape the character of a child and enable parents whether at home or school, to develop and nurture children into responsible adults.
It is accepted that poverty and inequality continue to spread at a pace faster than they are being addressed. In a sense the attempts to fight poverty and inequality are becoming a lost battle.
It may be that the true material conditions whether a result of historical consequence or otherwise are making it difficult for us to resolve the historical problems. However, the question must be asked: In the meantime should an entire army of young people and children be lost to crime and other social evils? Should the situation be allowed to degenerate further?
It may be well and good theoretically to argue that we have an education system. We may argue that access to education has improved over the years of a democratic government and that the education outputs are improving as evidenced by the national senior certificate year in year out.
But this may just be a delusional proposition which ignores the real escalating damage that is being done to the children and the youth.
The true test should be whether we have taken any extra-ordinary measures, in the context of our situation, to cushion and insulate the children from the adverse conditions they are exposed to.
In simple terms, have we created a situation where our schools differ from the conditions under which our children live?
There is nothing which says we cannot create a different environment in our schools which are materially different from the conditions at home.
Considering that children spend the greater part of their time at school, there cannot be any doubt that far better conditions at school can contribute significantly to shaping our children’s characters.
This brings up the real question: Can we proudly say that we have proper schools? Proper schools will be those with adequate infrastructure and facilities suitable for our children. Proper schools will be those with adequate human resources to facilitate proper learning and teaching.
Most of our schools are either just a four wall classroom, not properly secured for the children and the staff against external criminal and other elements.
They hardly have any capacity to detect the bad conduct of learners, which may be develop into inappropriate conduct or facilities which will enable children to enjoy being at school.
Over years, the government has opposed every single move to have binding norms and standards for school infrastructure. Whatever reasons the government has for its stance, this does not speak to the reality of what should be done to create a true learning and teaching environment.
It seems the government has adopted the minimalist approach to education. It is this approach which is part of the root causes of the deterioration in our schools.
It is true that education is a societal issue and that parents should play a critical role in education. But this is clearly an uninformed position in the current context where parents are like children, wholly dependent on the state because of poverty and inequality.
The reality is that in the current context, the parental role is that of the state. The levels of adult literacy are a stark reminder that we have a long way to go.
The high drop out and failure rates year in year out continue to contribute to the levels of poverty and illiteracy. The expectation that those who are already victims of what is clearly a failing system will see value in it is rather delusional.
There is no doubt that teachers may be our only salvation. However, they are themselves under siege. They are confronted by harsh and unpleasant working conditions where their own safety can hardly be guaranteed. They are confronted with unending policy changes and less resources.
One of the greatest injustices is that despite the deteriorating psycho-socio conditions in schools, teachers are still left to their own devices to see how they deal with the situation. Drugs in particular have become so freely available and used in schools.
With an acceptance of the high levels of poverty, unemployment and crime, all of which have spiralled out of control, it remains a mystery how the government expects the situation in schools to change for the better.
It is here that the government should be putting more effort and resources to build the capacity of teachers, schools and children to resist these adverse conditions.
The powers that be appear obsessed with national certificate results instead of an education system which is consistent with our material conditions.
The fact that Grade R is still a disputed issue and there is not much to resolve the issue of early childhood development suggest that we are far from having a real education system.
Countries which value their teachers and commit better resources instead of unending policy changes are doing far better than us even with the big education budget.
If by now we have not identified the true reasons we rank so low among other nations on education outcomes, then we remain lost.
Unless we create schools where our children want to spend more time and our teachers find a home then we can forget about even tackling the spiralling violence in our schools.
We have already lost the war against crime in our communities. At this rate, we are destined to lose it in our schools.
Building police stations in schools is no solution. So is the idea of teachers carrying guns to schools or expelling children in conflict with the law.
Advocate Modidima Mannya is a former head of education in the Eastern Cape