The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) has issued a press release in respect to the grooming of students, warning principals not to turn away students whose hair is “unkempt” as this does into impact on their ability to learn. That press release was apparently in response to the fact that Wolmers' Boys' School had requested that a few of their fourth form students get their hair properly groomed before they were allowed to do their alternative assessments. The issue of grooming is an issue that many principals have to contend with on a regular basis.
The issue of grooming and dress code has indeed been a contentious issue for a number of years now. It reached it peak when, in 2018, a student was barred from registering in Kensington Primary School because she had locked hair. That matter was taken to court, in which the MOEYI was a respondent.
There was public outrage when the court ruled in favour of the school and the MOEYI that:
1) The child does not have a right to attend a particular institution and that Kensington Primary School can reject her as a student.
2) This does not affect the child's right to education as she could always attend another school that supports her form of expression.
In light of the ruling by the courts on this matter, I am at a loss as to the press release. The MOEYI is essentially saying that it does not agree with the court ruling in which it was a respondent/defendant. One can even go further to argue that the press release is disrespectful of the court's ruling.
Code of regulations
Section 29 of the Education Code of Regulations states that, “A student shall obey all the rules of the school he is attending.” It further identifies the steps that a student/parent should take if they feel victimised, including appealing to the principal and the board if necessary.
It is the standard practice of schools that parents sign a document to say that they have read the institution's rules and that they agree that they will obey them. The MOEYI, in keeping with the regulations, must first satisfy itself that these steps had been followed by the parent/student before even seeking to intervene directly in the matter. The MOEYI should also satisfy itself as to whether or not the parent/student was aware of the rules and the steps that the school would have taken to communicate its stance on the issue. If it failed to do this, then it usurped the role of the principal and that of the board of management, and due process as prescribed by the code of regulations. It cannot be that the wrong message is being sent when students/parents break rules that have been legitimately established, and then they can run to the MOEYI for support.
I am also baffled as to the wording of the press release and why the MOEYI chose to issue a press release and not a bulletin — which is the standard practice of the MOEYI when communicating with its internal stakeholders. Whilst I highly doubt it was the MOEYI's intention, the press release is essentially gaslighting school principals and throwing them under the bus. It not only publicly humiliates principals, but also causes the relationship between school administrators and parents to deteriorate, as it pitches both stakeholders against each other. It makes our jobs as principals harder.
As a direct response to the Kensington Primary situation, the MOEYI developed and published a national policy on grooming and dress code in schools. The policy defined inappropriate dress and grooming as, “The state of a student's attire and/or presentation which does not meet the standards of the public educational institution he or she attends as stipulated in the institution's student dress code.”
The policy further highlights the steps that schools should take in developing the rules before the board of management gives its final stamp of approval. The policy also identifies the advantages of an effective dress code and grooming policy in schools and the need for conformity.
The press release by the MOEY, therefore, not only violates and disregards its very own policy that it had developed and published, but also helps to promote misunderstandings, misgivings, and confusion in the system.
Grooming in schools
Notwithstanding the fact that the national policy on grooming has highlighted the advantages and importance of having a dress code and grooming policy, if the role of schools is merely to impart the written curriculum, then there is no need for a dress code and grooming policy. However, if the role of schools is to also develop upstanding individuals with good moral and ethical character, and who understand norms, mores, and values in our society, then there must be a need for rules and conformity.
This is not to say that students should be stifled of their creativity and express themselves through what they wear and how they dress. In fact, the hidden curriculum facilitates this; for example crazy dress day”, jeans day, hat and tie Day, crazy hairstyle day, Jamaica day, and culture day. But there is a time and place for everything.
Every uniformed group in this country has a dress code and grooming policy, whether it is the police force, army, fire brigade, Scouts, cadet corps, nurses, etc. All of these groups set standards for discipline and having sound character. Should school be any less?
We need to be careful how far we will push this argument about “expression of one's self”. Pretty soon we will have to allow female students with bright coloured wigs and false eye lashes. Boys can start wearing extremely tight pants with their underwear showing, exposed tattoos, and plaited hair with colouring. If we are preparing our students for the world of work such training for grooming ought to be included.
I will hasten to add that there is a grooming and dress code policy for teachers and for parliamentarians. Why should it be any different for students?
The MOEYI needs to start engaging principals in more meaningful dialogue and be less concerned with public relations. Standards should never be sacrificed at the altar of expediency. Ministry should ensure that the code of regulations is followed in terms of how they engage schools on matters. The role of principals and boards of management should not be undermined or usurped, but supported, in keeping with the principles of good governance.
Let's stop majoring in the minors. There are more important matters that warrant our attention at this time.
Mark Malabver is principal of Yallahs High School, chairman in the Inner-city Teachers Coalition, and a PhD candidate in educational leadership and management. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or MarkMalabver@yahoo.com.