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Achimota debacle

BY: Rodney's Potpourri

Over the past few days, social media has been alight with the interesting story of a young student who was turned initially away by Achimota School until he cut his dreadlocks and had a low haircut in accordance with the school’s regulations for all students, including girls.

As I understand it, the boy’s case was that as a Rastafarian, it was against the tenets of his religious beliefs to cut his hair.

Eventually, the school was ordered by the Ghana Education Service (GES) to admit the boy, with the GES stating that the boy would have to keep his hair neat.

The Achimota School insists dreadlocks do not conform to the school’s rules

Rights versus rules

Understandably, this has generated heated debate on social media platforms, with some bemoaning the imminent breakdown of discipline in the face of the GES micromanaging schools when heads are best placed to enforce rules that have been in place for years and have helped make the schools what they are today.

They say such ‘interference’ undermines the authority of the school authorities.

“Rules are rules, and they are there for a purpose!” They intone. The argument is that by allowing this, the GES has effectively opened the floodgates for all manner of non-conformist behaviour, dress codes or hairstyles to invade our campuses in the name of religious freedom or human rights and that we will rue this one day.

The fear is that we are going down a slippery road with this ‘human rights thing’, where everyone knows their rights, but seemingly not their responsibilities.

Of course, nostalgic references are made to the days of old when the headmaster or headmistress’ word was law and no exceptions were brokered.

“Who born dog?” one lady intoned in reference to the ‘good old days’ at her alma mater. In some schools, headmasters and housemasters kept scissors handy, ready to give instant haircuts to recalcitrant students they bumped into, who had decided that the school rules pertaining to haircuts did not apply to them.

Balancing act

While these concerns are valid and school rules on dress codes and haircuts serve useful purposes, I think it is also important that they lend themselves for accommodation on a case-by-case basis.

After all, from time immemorial, schools have made provision for special diets where religious or health needs call for them.

Asthmatic students have been excused from sweeping duties, and at my alma mater Opoku Ware School, a Catholic school for instance, Muslim students have a dedicated area for their prayers.

A range of examples abound.

I think in this matter, the first question is whether or not the Achimota rule on haircuts interferes with the boy’s religious beliefs.

My answer is that it does. Religious freedom is guaranteed by our Constitution, unlike say, fashion considerations, which is why I think those who argue about the risk of female students insisting on the right to perm their hair miss the point entirely.

But the interference is not the end of the matter.

Secondly, is the rule in pursuit of a legitimate objective? Again, I would say yes, because in keeping low haircuts students spend less time trying to maintain it and are able to focus better on their studies, among other reasons, including hygiene considerations.

Thirdly, in weighing the religious belief against the school’s legitimate aim, is it proportionate to maintain the rule in this case? 

In other words, how do you balance the competing interests of religious beliefs and school rules? In this, issues such as risk of harm to others, risk of harm to the student and other considerations would have to be taken into account in settling where the scale ought to tip for a final decision.

Our reality

The reality is that our society continues to evolve and get more complex in its diversity and outlook. What was fashionable or permissible a few decades ago may no longer be the case, and in my view it is unreasonable to expect our SHS landscape to look or feel the same way as it did 40 or 50 years ago.

For example, back then, parents used to encourage their children’s teachers to lash them in school over infractions at home and in some cases would actually frog march the errant child to school and hand them over for the purpose.

Today, corporal punishment is banned in schools and is less fashionable in many homes. A child’s faith or religious denomination is no longer relevant in the school admission process. 

So many other things have changed, including transition to constitutional rule with all its human rights appendages that we signed up for and cannot ignore.

No need to panic

I do not think the way forward is to throw the rule book away and allow a freefall of clothing, hairstyle and every other aspect that has been in place for all this while.

They have served a useful purpose in making our top schools what they are and long may they continue. But within these strictures, it should be possible to accommodate and make provision of some ‘irregularities’ on a strictly case-by-case basis.

After all, it is not every year that a Rastafarian or Buddhist or Eckankar student turns up in our boarding schools.

I think Achimota is robust enough to contain this particular student and will not fall apart at the seams.

There is absolutely no need to press the panic button. But school heads must brace themselves for  such moments and should be able to sit with parents and education officials to work out the extent to which it would be possible to accommodate the child’s right to an education.

Simply shouting ‘rules are rules!’ is not good enough, I am afraid. Neither is the digging up of ‘doomsday scenarios’ of things falling apart, with traditional worship students in a trance and sauntering around our gentle campus lawns in grass skirts and cowries in the name of religious freedom. 

Change is always difficult in the face of what we may not be too familiar with, but uniformity and discipline need not mean hard, granite-like monolithic structures.

There is nothing new under the sun. We only need calm, tactful and innovative thinking.

I wish the young student a happy stay at Achimota. I hope his mates get to learn a thing or two about Rastafarianism to broaden their horizons.

Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng,

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