EDITORIAL: Disempowering parents is risky
Options for the middle class are growing as private-sector companies roll out schools
The Department of Basic Education has published a draft bill that will amend various pieces of legislation including the South African Schools Act.
The amendment seeks to clarify certain issues such as the authority to determine admission and language policies, which have given rise to extensive litigation. However, the most important objective of these amendments is the one that aims to stamp out the corruption that has become endemic in the appointment of promotion posts in schools.
Sadtu’s extensive influence has developed despite parent members being the majority on school government bodies, since they include principals and teacher representatives, all of whom predominantly belong to Sadtu
In poorer communities, where the stakes are high as to who gets that much sought-after promotion, school governing bodies and trade union officials have used their leverage in the process to earn extra cash.
Two years ago, a commission headed by Prof John Volmink stated emphatically — to quote educationalist Nic Spaull — "that Sadtu [South African Democratic Teachers Union] had captured the education department in most provinces".
Sadtu’s extensive influence has developed despite parent members being the majority on school government bodies, since they include principals and teacher representatives, all of whom predominantly belong to Sadtu. It has gained additional influence from trade union representatives sitting in on interviews, along with the district director, usually also a Sadtu member. White communities, in particular, have used the power of school governing bodies to block the appointment of teachers of other races and the result has been that many schools have remained islands of apartheid.
The department has now decided that the best way to solve these problems is to leave senior appointments to the head of the provincial department of education. As there are more than 24,000 public schools, it will be the officials in the provincial department who will decide who to promote and where to place them. Will this work?
The effect will be different for the different schools that sit at opposite ends of the poverty-wealth continuum. For poor schools, which make up the vast majority, the change should improve the quality of appointments. There will be fewer opportunities for corruption, although these will not be completely removed. Officials higher up the ladder might be one step removed from the schools and may be less desperate financially but not necessarily more honest.
For wealthy schools, the outcome will be mixed. Racial representivity of the teaching staff will certainly improve. For children to develop positive role models of people of all races and to be taught by them will be an excellent thing for SA. But while governing body authority has been responsible for blocking transformation it also, in privileged schools, has been at the centre of their success. Because parents have enjoyed a large amount of autonomy in making appointments, they have invested in public schools both by hiring additional staff that the department cannot afford to pay, fund raising and paying for additional facilities.
It is this relative autonomy that has allowed public schools in privileged communities to be excellent and offer excellent value of money for middle-class parents. In short, it has kept a large section of the middle class in the public system.
Over the past 20 years or so, this has been a key policy objective. The middle class can enhance the resources of a school in a way that poorer communities cannot. When the middle class abandons a public system in large numbers, the system is fundamentally weakened. This is the danger here. The rich — white and black — have long since taken their children to private schools. Options for the middle class are growing as private sector companies such as Curro roll out schools all over SA.
While removing appointments of senior staff and principals from the jurisdiction of governing bodies may limit opportunities for corruption, it will accelerate the privatisation trend. Unfortunately, it will be the poor who remain behind in the public system who will feel the social cost.