Hairy Achimota School case -Lessons for educational leadership, governance

Deputy Education Minister, Dr. Osei Adutwum

Over the past few days, the events surrounding the controversial admission of Rastafarian students into Achimota Senior High School (SHS) have caused significant interest in the educational leadership and management circles.

I have been particularly interested in this issue due to its implications on school leadership even at the local and national levels.

Of particular interest to me is the controversial way the issue was handled by the Ghana Education Service (GES), which is the agency mandated by the Ministry of Education (MoE) to provide the operational framework for schools.

The case of the Rastafarian students, although ongoing, exposes some fundamental gaps in our school leadership and governance systems.

The said students, duly admitted into the school, have been unable to enrol due to their refusal to comply with the school’s rule to keep short hair, an act that contradicts their fundamental religious beliefs.

Legal provisions

In analysing the case, these questions come to mind; what are the legal provisions for the expression of religious beliefs?

To what extent does the expression of these rights constitute a breach of school rules and national policy? The GES’s directive to the school to admit the students has resulted in even more controversy.

In such cases, whose directives hold supreme, the school authorities (who are directly responsible for what goes on within the schools and, therefore, enshrine school rules and regulations that best enable them to run their schools effectively) or the GES, the agency with the sole responsibility of regulating schools in Ghana?

I am personally enthused by the amount of interest this issue has generated in the Ghanaian society.

Changes

This strongly indicates that the school rules put in place several years ago may not be useful for purpose today due to several socio-cultural changes in our society.

The changes call for a review of our existing policies to include ‘exemption clauses’ that cater for peculiar needs without unduly compromising the safety and sanity of the entire educational system.

The heavy hand applied to keep students in check several years ago may well be unnecessary today.

The call for school leadership and governance review is loud and resounding – make schools more conducive for people of diverse backgrounds.

Education has evolved and so have our students. This review of education policy and school rules should not be undertaken by school leaders in isolation, but through extensive engagement of all stakeholders.

Stakeholder engagement, as a key component of educational leadership and governance, involves dialogue with all stakeholders of education, including students, parents, school authorities, alumni associations and regulatory bodies to find a middle ground for implementing discipline in schools.

In the case of the Rastafarians, the matter could have been better handled if discussions were held to explain the rationale for the school’s decision and grounds upon which the religious beliefs of the students could be accommodated.

Compromise is the result of such negotiations, with the objective of finding a middle ground that fairly satisfies all parties involved without unduly damaging the image of the school or the head teacher involved.

The truth of the matter is that schools are established and mandated by the GES to provide educational services to all qualified students without prejudice or discrimination.

However, powerful stakeholders such as the alumni associations who provide tremendous financial support for schools and the teacher associations cannot be left out.

In the Achimota case, the old students association came out strongly to oppose the GES’s directive to the school to admit the students.

This was heavily and strongly backed by the NAGRAT. The conflicting directives and disappointment of parents create a hostile environment for all affected parties.

Premature exposure of the issue to social media with no protection for the students involved appears to have worsened the case. No doubt, something must be done about this situation.

Exemption clauses

School leaders need to consider formalising exemption clauses in school rules that cater for such peculiarities, without compromising the discipline in schools.

GES should play a lead role in the review of policies that determine code of conduct of all students, indicating acceptable exemptions that are unambiguous.

Fortunately, Article 14 (1)(e) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana provides grounds upon which a person’s personal liberty may be deprived: “for the purpose of the education or welfare of a person who has not attained the age of 18”.

This implies that there is legal backing for school authorities who insist on the students’ adherence to the school’s code of conduct, including rules on keeping hair short.

It is interesting to note that the parents of the affected students have decided to seek legal redress. Legal action, if pursued, could bring some finality to this case.

At the end of the day, schools exist to serve public interest, but where the performance of this function is threatened by non-conformance based on religious grounds, society is bound to react aggressively, as seen in the Achimota School case.

The onus then lies on the GES to set the record straight and ensure that policies remain clear and relevant in our ever-changing educational system.

The writer is a Senior Assistant Registrar at Ghana Communication Technology University; an Educational Leadership & Governance researcher at the University of Ghana, Legon.

E-mail: yaaessah@gmail.com

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