Apartheid education policies deliberately underfunded schools for African, Colored and Indian communities. White schools received nearly five times more funding than schools of other races, which created a disparity in education that we are still trying to correct. It was therefore important, after apartheid, to ensure that education policy was oriented towards socio-economic transformation.
In 1996, the South African Schools Act gave parents, teachers and secondary school students the right to form School Governing Bodies (SGBs). SGBs were introduced to increase participatory democracy within communities, ensuring that the people of South Africa can have a voice in determining their basic right to education.
As with any policy, the adoption of SGBs has had consequences, both positive and negative.
The involvement and empowerment of parents, learners and communities in the field of education is one of the main positive results. In resource-rich communities, the additional governance capacity has led to high-performing schools and simultaneously reduced the burden on the state, theoretically providing additional capacity that allows education departments to focus on communities historically disadvantaged.
In some cases, the SGB model has had negative consequences. In resource-poor communities, through no fault of their own, elected members of the community often lack the skills required to run a school effectively. These schools are sometimes badly managed. The power to make recommendations regarding appointments of educators and leaders has also presented challenges.
Given the sheer volume of nominations made each year, it is very difficult for education departments to rigorously monitor the process SGBs follow and interview proposed candidates for the roles. We have a system where those deprived of education are often responsible for appointing educators – the net result being huge variation in quality.
In extreme cases, governing bodies have been guilty of nepotism and corruption – sell teaching and leadership positions to educators in collaboration with trade unions. Over the past three decades, capacity constraints and corruption have systematically undermined school management and the quality of education in schools with limited resources.
Conversely, Section 21 schools and former “Model C” schools have benefited from the SGB model in ways that have continued to segregate our society and exacerbate the divide in access to quality education. . With the power to set key policies such as fees, admissions, and languages, former Model C schools were indeed able to control their admission and ensure they continued to grant access. to privileged families – often excluding those who have been historically disadvantaged.
In October 2017, a project Basic Education Amendment Bill has been published for public consultation. This bill proposes nearly 40 amendments to the South African Schools Act as well as a handful of changes to the Educator Employment Act of 1998. This bill represents a unique opportunity to address some of the challenges we face with our model of school governance.
Overall, the bill aims to strengthen the regulatory and supervisory powers granted to the Minister, members of the executive council and heads of departments (HODs) with regard to SGBs. This is a welcome change – a move towards greater oversight and accountability to mitigate the frequent incidences of nepotism, corruption, discrimination, underperformance and skills shortages.
Increased reporting and transparency, as well as the power to disband underperforming or corrupt AMSs are strong proposed accountability mechanisms.
Specifically, the bill proposes that the HOD have greater authority over the admission of learners to public schools, greater oversight of admissions and language policies, and the power to order a public school to adopt more than one language of instruction (provided that the HOD then provides the necessary resources to enable adequate instruction).
Everyone in education should work to ensure access for all, and our society demands equitable approaches that prioritize access and learning for disadvantaged groups.
But there are problems with the increased powers on offer. Granting HODs greater authority over the admission of learners to public schools may not only currently be considered unconstitutional, but appears to be a direct response to the annual challenge of insufficient school space – where every year Gauteng and the Western Cape are inundated with late arrivals from neighboring provinces and countries and supposed to find school places for them.
This amendment may allow HODs to authorize the placement of learners in schools with minimal consultation and devastating consequences.
In my view, the bill takes a fairly binary approach to solving the governance challenges facing education – either the power lies with the parents or the ministry. Simply shifting the governance role from SGBs to HODs presents a daunting challenge – it places additional responsibility on an already overstretched and underfunded system. This will probably lead to more bureaucracy and bottlenecks.
I would like to propose that we consider a third path – increasing capacity and distributing power through innovative partnerships between the state, the public, civil society and the private sector – with a focus on historically disadvantaged communities and oppressed.
There are already examples of this in our schools. Gauteng and the Western Cape have both piloted “twin” schools – pairing privileged schools with underfunded schools and sharing governance, leadership and facilities for a set period to set the new school up for success.
One of the best examples of this is the twinning of Westerford and Claremont High School – ranked 9th in the Western Cape for NSC results in 2020. Another example of increased governance capacity is the Western Cape Collaborative Schools – there are had challenges in the pilot phase, but these schools are showing promising signs in terms of results and have the potential to add substantial capacity to the system when the required accountability and oversight mechanisms are in place.
The challenge the system faces with overcrowding provides another opportunity to think differently about supply and partnerships. Covid has accelerated our ability to stream content remotely.
Rather than empowering HODs to conduct internships as needed, the Ministry of Basic Education and National Government should seriously consider policies that allow for greater flexibility in the provision of education – online and mixed – and seek to develop the necessary infrastructure to support this. Blended learning, in particular, has the potential to be delivered at a fraction of the cost of traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ education – the Bill as it stands makes very little provision for this kind of innovation .
Education is a fundamental right for all, and the State therefore has the responsibility to ensure access to it for every citizen. But with rights come responsibilities, and quality education for all is therefore surely everyone’s responsibility.
I urge those of us in civil society and the private sector to engage with the bill and offer alternative solutions and support in the next round of public hearings. Those who work for the state, please listen to our contributions and be open to considering alternatives.
This Bill provides a unique opportunity to collectively right the wrongs of the past and begin to fulfill South Africa’s mandate to ensure that “all our people will have access to opportunities for learning, education and lifelong learning which, in turn, will contribute to improving the quality of life and building a peaceful, prosperous and democratic South Africa”. DM