SGBs and the GDE: SECTION27's narrow and sensationalist view

Sara Gon says the organisation has waded into an issue it doesn't properly understand

I wish to challenge Section27's narrow and sensationalist view of the issue of the Gauteng Department of Education v School Governing Bodies. I attended the court hearing but I don't intend to comment on the merits of the case but rather put forward a view from the tenches. Both of my children attended government schools for their entire schooling and I spent 13 years on governing bodies.

The impression given in much of the argument in court was that it was a noble battle between the provision of education nationally and the overreach of SGBs. The further impression given is that it is a matter of clarifying the balancing act that the principal has to perform in advancing the admission policy as devised by the SGB, and managing the practical application process on behalf of the Gauteng Department and Education as its employee. It's not. It's actually a grubby war between the changing and unplanned exigencies of an incompetent but overstretched GDE, and SGBs trying to hold schools together. 

Gauteng has a greater and greater influx of schoolchildren every year. This is due to a myriad of factors. Many are the children of economic migrants. Many have been sent to Gauteng for a better education than that available in other provinces. Many are the result of the changing of provincial boundaries.

The tension between the GDE and SGBs is not a result of carefully honed legislation and regulation. It is a clash between legislation and hastily crafted and ever changing regulations to accommodate repeatedly changing conditions. This is what has placed principals in the impossible position of having, in effect, two masters.

SECTION27 and its followers say "The Constitutional Court's decision in the Rivonia case is a crucial one for the future of equal access to education in SA. It will have an impact on learners and communities throughout South Africa. It will determine who has the final say in how many learners attend a school, what language they will be taught in and who will be excluded from a school on the basis of an SGB's admission and language policies."

The reason that this situation exists is because the government legislated it. When the South African Schools Act came into force in the '90s the government gave SGBs significant powers because the government saw them as fulfilling two roles: as a serious opportunity for democratic participation at community level. Pragmatically it also saw that if SGBs could run schools effectively and with the contribution of school fees by parents, this would take some of the burden off the State to concentrate on really poor communities.

In this matter such government schools have often sneeringly been referred to as "formerly privileged", "white". "Model C schools", in "leafy" suburbs. The GDE, argued that because of past privilege and suburban location these schools have huge advantages over other schools and, impliedly, this is unfair. He did argue that the right to access was not about a free-for-all, but the sentiment was that schooling must be equally available and therefore no one should be refused the right to attend a good school. The GDE must determine the ultimate right to attend a school not withstanding national legislation, confused provincial regulation and SGBs must accept this.

Let me clarify the situation on the ground: Parents at these schools have already contributed to public education through their taxes. Therefore school fees are paid with after tax money. This means, technically, the State is not entitled to the benefits of this spend. However, what this means is that the schools can be better equipped, be better staffed and achieve better results. Due to the law it also means that on average 20% to 30% of the pupils are subsidised by fee paying parents because of indigence. Virtually all of these children are Africans.

What is often forgotten or not knowng, however, is that SGBs are legally required to budget each year and have their budgets passed at AGMs of the parents each year. This is the legislated process that parent must go through before fees are determined which allow the school to survive and provide a much-needed source of pride for the GDE when the matric results come out every year. In balancing the amount they can spend (which includes the cross-subsidising) with the fees they can charge a school cannot afford to admit an unlimited number on non-fee paying children. Usually this means an acceptance rate of 25% to 30%. Government legislation anticipates this. If the government (GDE) is unhappy about this, it must change the law. The schools will change accordingly - many of the fee payers will withdraw and the school becomes increasingly the GDE's responsibility.

The inheritance of the "facilities of privilege" are all very well. The GDE does not maintain the facilities even though it is obliged to. So SGBs pay to do so. Infrastructure disintegrates if it is not maintained. So if a school does not have enough after-tax money to spend on those facilities, they crumble plain and simple. In our "elite" school we have been unable to repair the roof and the boiler for heating for want of funds. This is a school that is one of the top feeder schools to Wits University.

Another argument profered was that by virtue of the demographics of the suburbs, these schools remain sites of white privilege. This is nonsense. Priority is given first and foremost to children who live in the area or have a parent who works in the area. The greatest beneficiaries of this and the cross-subsidisation are the children of domestic workers. In this leafiest of leafy schools the composition of the school is 50% African, 35% Indian, 7% white and 8% Coloured. By the time my younger son finished grade 7, his "elite", suburban primary school had 5 white children out of 350. Many of the pupils travel in from Soweto, Lenasia and Eldorado Park.

Giving control to SGBs does usually mean that facilities are better, results are better and the children are better able to compete in the adult world. But the GDE can't have it both ways: it cannot have strong governing bodies and use its powers to override the SGBs when the pressures on the GDE to meet the constitutional imperative to provide places for schools.

In our district at the end of 2012 there were 1500 children that the GDE still had to place and approached relevant SGBs to assist. As usual the SGBs came to the party to the extent that they could. However, it is little known that in our district there is a school that was closed a decade ago because it was dysfunctional and the GDE gave the building to Telkom to use as offices. Its capacity? 1500. It has so far been unable to get it back.

In court, the GDE raised the fact that there were 3000 unplaced primary school children at the end of 2012. I have been doing some investigations on behalf of someone who wants to start a primary school in Diepkloof in Soweto. I discovered that there are 3 defunct primary schools in Soweto. One is used as a private adult education centre. Where is the GDE? Why hasn't it done something about reopening these schools? Children should be able to schools within walking distance of home.

SECTION27 and others have painted this as a noble fight of good against evil. The constitutional imperative is on the government to provide basic education - not individual schools. The GDE should bury its weathered pride and seek meaningful partnerships with the private sector. Most companies will support education above all. 

The GDE and National Education has not done the job. So its answer is to argue against its own laws to provide equal education, not of the highest possible standard, but of the lowest. I speak from considerable experience when I say that a point is reached where parents decide to withdraw their children and their fees and sacrifice further to go to private schools because of the demands of the GDE. However one feels ideologically about this, this is not good for the quality of the schools, the benefits available to indigent pupils and the results for the department. If the GDE has any obligation it is to provide basic education of suburban quality in poor school, not the other way round. 

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