The issue of ‘the other’ when it comes to school admissions: The case of Achimota School and Rastafarian students

Read Time: 9 minutes
Dr. Mary Apea Ashun, Principal Ghana International School and an alumna of Achimota School

Dr. Mary Apea Ashun, Principal Ghana International School and an alumna of Achimota School

Ghana is currently in the throes of a discussion that may seem ludicrous to some and timely to others. It is at once important, because it is opening up a conversation we should have had long ago…and it is at once unimportant, because, as some are saying, ‘it’s about hair’.

Regardless of which camp you find yourself in, or whether you have one foot in one and the other precariously dangling in the other, I would like to share some thoughts with you: as an educator with over 25 years experience teaching and leading institutions in Ghana and beyond, as a parent of three sons and as a former student of the school in question.

First, let us situate ourselves in the grand old discussion of what education is and what it is meant to do. So much has been written about it and I don’t think this is the place for me to write an academic paper. Suffice it to say that simply put, education is meant to be a process that changes you, for your own good and the good of others in society.

To this end, we set up institutions to help us do this since grouping individuals together for a process has the added benefit of having us learn from one another, a time tested way of speeding up the process of learning.

Once institutions have been set up, they must be managed. Management of anything by its very nature requires visible, stated ‘fences’ to keep everyone in, and doing what they are meant to be doing. We call these fences: rules and regulations. Occasionally, a member will try ‘to scale a fence’ or actually succeed in doing so.

We therefore, when planning these rules and regulations put in place, disciplinary procedures to ensure that said behaviour does not occur again (by the same student) or, said behaviour does (or not) become the kind of teachable moment we want for the other members in the group. Because we live in a dynamic society, we need to go back regularly to determine if (1) the rules and regulations are still needed (2) if they are not needed, is it because we need to do away with them entirely or replace them with new ones?.

Public schooling is a complex beast because it aims to be all things to all people. When a Government creates an Act of Education, its goal is to provide access to everyone regardless of a variety of differences, and to ensure that once access has been created, the environment is ready to educate the child with competent Human Resources and up to date, relevant material resources.

We also have different levels of education because people go through different stages of life. The age of 18 seems to be accepted by many countries and cultures as the point at which many of these rules and regulations get reduced or eliminated because the child has now become an adult. As such, I will focus my thoughts with the pre-18 cohort who also just happen to be the group that I have worked mostly with. Key thoughts on this age group I would like you to keep in mind are:

1. Children need an environment for learning that recognizes that they are individuals. Individuality is not a selfish thing. It is a recognition that you are different in the way you perceive things and different in the way you may want to lead your life. How we incorporate that individuality into an environment for learning is a design issue but a really critical one: we should not want to turn every child into a certain robotic ideal of the perfect child. Because there is no such thing as a perfect child.

2. Children learn by making mistakes (I’d like to think adults do too but the jury’s out on that one!). It would be infantile for any adult to assume that all children will obey the rules set out for them.

3. Because children are educated at school and in their homes, we can expect that there needs to be synergy between these two places. The school is primarily set up to teach pedagogical content and skills, and the home is primarily set up to inculcate family values. Along the way, we have realized we cannot delineate so clearly and therefore, schools also seek to inculcate values while homes are teaching the content to support what the school does. Note that I said the school is now teaching values and not family values: a School’s values may not always gel with a family’s values and this is where the family and not necessarily the School, has to make a decision.

The values a school ends up teaching (and they may mirror the values of several families) must be outlined clearly from the founding of the institution. Some of these values will be non-negotiable. Others will be negotiable, and therefore will change and the reason is… they are not really values; they are operational preferences. More on this later.

Now to the case at hand. I will summarize it to the best of my knowledge:

A number of students, who have passed their exams with flying colours and who chose Achimota school are said to be denied entry to the school unless they conform to the hair code which requires all students – regardless of gender – to have short hair.

The School’s rules and regulations were recently reviewed (2020) and the decision was to keep the hair code which includes the statement that “Students must keep their hair low, simple and natural. Students’ hair should not go through any chemical process. The scalp must not show”. Their families insist that the boys’ hair cannot abide by that rule.

I will now proceed to invite you into this conversation with a focus on the highlighted words of that case summary.

1. They are smart kids. Basically, they know how to study, are able to assimilate the information and produce answers that are worthy of a marking scheme. These boys are very good at conforming because the examination system does not allow you to e.g. answer a multiple choice question with a long written answer.

They’ve done this for about 12 years of their lives (during which time their hair was likely loc’d) and want to be given the opportunity to continue conforming, academically. And they want to do it in an institution whose motto is ‘That All May Be One’.

2. They chose Achimota. And they qualified for admission. I do not know them but would hazard a guess that they chose it for the promise of a good education one expects to get from a school tried and tested since 1927, and of course the brand. There are other options are there not? There are schools with strong brands also.

There are schools with strong academics also. Choosing to go to Achimota must be a well thought out process that considers what the child will gain from the school. With the media circus that has drowned out the real issue at hand, I would be worried that he would not be warmly embraced by members of the school community…who have dutifully obeyed all the rules even if they didn’t like it.

3. They were denied entry into the school by the School authorities because of the ‘state’ of their hair. This, to me, is an example of an operational preference as first cited earlier in this opinion piece. This is supported by the fact that some of the arguments in favour of the denial of entry have centered on the time wasted on hairstyles by young people and the need to keep hair clean in a boarding facility where students share living and learning spaces.

I must state categorically how appalled I have been with statements alluding to all Locs being dirty or lice riddled; let’s educate ourselves! Anyone managing teenagers in a school will tell you it is no mean feat. Parents reading this – why do you send your children to a boarding school? If people were truthful, they’d not only say it was ‘to make them disciplined and independent’. They’d also say they were difficult to handle at home! And they are your own children!

How can an institution run well when it has to take care of a large number of an age group that is the most experimental in the life cycle of a human being? It needs to lay down some rules that are based on its values. That’s the plain truth. But it must not confuse rules based on values with rules based on operational preferences. As a School Head, I am interpreting what Achimota is saying (by denying entry) as “…operationally, we have found that our unique context thrives when the following rules are kept”.

4. Conformity: As a cursory search on wikipedia will tell you: “Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms, politics or being like-minded. Norms are implicit, specific rules, shared by a group of individuals, that guide their interactions with others” . From experience, conformity is very desirable when seeking to manage a group of people, especially children. It is easier, is predictable (and therefore easier to plan for), and allows us to easily identify those who stray so that we can ‘bring them back to the fold’.

Throughout history however, we have cases of non conformists who end up showing us a new perspective on our approach to ideas and ideals we held so dear. Achimota School is a school founded on Anglican principles. King Henry VIII (yes, he of the beheading fame), founded the Anglican Church because he wanted to be able to divorce and marry whomever he wanted, contrary to the principles of the Catholic Church. He didn’t want to conform.

Anglicans are non-conformists…and in that same vein, Protestants too, through the non-conforming activities and thoughts of Martin Luther! Those in our society who prescribe to these expressions of faith should not cast a stone before they consider their own non-conforming traditions they boldly display as ‘a matter of course’.

Those who want Achimota to deny entry to the student (made up of both Alumni of the school and non-alumni mind you!) may have not considered the fact that they are acting out of fear. Fear that the floodgates will be open and we will have all sorts of requests for admission from quarters that are not ‘genteel’ or ‘Achimotan’ (whatever that means!). WhatsApp has allowed us to share unsettling images, perhaps intended to make us fear a future when ‘the other’ will ask to be admitted to a particular school and we won’t be able to say no.

Fear is a powerful force. It drives us to exclude and it drives us to include. It can give strength to push through an endeavour and in the same vein, cause one to crumble and hide in a corner. It progresses humanity and yet, can make us stagnant. Fear of losing control keeps coming up but could I suggest this: Instead of being afraid to open the door to this ‘different’ student, can we ask ourselves what that difference might add by way of value so that the School Motto “That All May Be One”, really has teeth?

Could our students become more willing to negotiate understanding with people who are not like them? In this globalized world we live in, what kind of student do we want to produce? One who does not know how to work with those who are different or one who does?

Article 14.1 of the Constitution of Ghana is beautiful. It recognizes that we are entitled to our personal liberty and shall not be deprived of said liberty. However, it also has exceptions to the deprivation of this liberty and one of the exceptions has to do with Education. How fortuitous! It allows for some liberties to be deprived for the purpose of education when the individual is under the age of 18. I am no lawyer.

But our esteemed colleagues who are well versed in the law will tell us that this means that for the purpose of education, Achimota School has every right to deprive a student of this liberty to study at their esteemed institution. This really does seem to end the case doesn’t it? And yet because this is really only the beginning of us carefully considering changes that must come, here are some concluding thoughts:

● I am glad we are having this conversation because we cannot keep the lid on differences as long as we live on earth. As a society, we will have to confront these tough conversations, debate them and be open to change. What form this will take cannot be prescribed but it must start. And it should start by acknowledging our biases towards people who don’t look like us, eat like us, talk like us or worship like us.

● To have an effective, crucial conversation, we must make every effort to include diverse voices, not just those we know will agree with us. Diversity isn’t only racial; one can also have diversity of thought and approach to solving problems. Groups that are constituted to make important decisions must not shy away from inviting non-conformists to the table. We might all learn a thing or two!

● We must also recognize the tough job our educators do in not only teaching, but providing a safe environment (with all its rules and regulations), for our students to study in, especially away from their homes. Having to keep our children home for an extended period of time during the pandemic was a stark reminder of the role that schools and educators play…just in case we’d forgotten!

● While Schools cannot be all things to all people, all stakeholders must endeavour to wisely balance the provision of access with the need to manage the school environment effectively. Leadership in difficult decision making is made easier when emotions- based on race, creed and other differences – are minimized or wonderfully eliminated…and facts remain.

But then again, what do I know? I’m just a lover of children, a believer in the power of education to change individuals and communities, and a mum with three adult sons (all over age 18!) who daily remind me that what I saw when they were growing up was a mere glimpse of a beautiful future for children who are given room to be themselves. I am also an adult who if given the opportunity at age sixteen, would have had a different hairstyle every week! Lord knows for me, my short hair had very little to do with any academic excellence I achieved. Infact, I excelled when no one told me what to do with my hair…