The Gauteng Dept of Education and the "white schools"

Sara Gon says the continued success of suburban schools is both resented and relied upon

An Experience in Public Education that is Little Known and Less Understood

"When the Gauteng Department of Education forced Rivonia Primary to take an extra child, it effectively overrode the authority of the school governing body to determine admissions policy. A school that raises private resources to enable quality education for manageable numbers of learners from diverse racial and class backgrounds, found itself being subjected to legal action and its principal under threat of dismissal over one (middle class black) child. The issues of diversity and inclusion are not at stake here - this can and should be achieved through other means; what is at stake is the erosion of the authority of a school to decide over admissions. The central authority knows best."

These comments are an extract from Professor Jonathan Jansen's presidential address to the South African Institute of Race Relations on 27 September 2012, entitled Seven dangerous shifts in the public education crisis.

One of the shifts he raised is the belief by government that central control is better than local authority in education. Jansen referred to the High Court case of Rivonia Primary School. It is important to note that the child who was refused admission was the child of influential parents who applied late to the school for admission. By going to the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) and getting support from an official, the parents ran roughshod over the rules for admission, the requisite waiting lists, the policy of the School Governing Body (SGB), and basically unjustifiably "parachuted" the child into the school. The child had no particular legal right to be there.

Prof Jansen noted that where once the clarion call of struggle was for communities to take charge of education at the local level, there is now a creeping tendency to reinvest that authority in the centre. The centralisation of power invariably carries the potential for abuse, and this is clearly evident in recent cases.

Prof Jansen's reference to the Rivonia case raises an example of the never-ending, "Jekyll and Hyde" struggle by the national Department of Basic Education in general, and the provincial Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) in particular, to respond to suburban government schools. There is a complex range of issues at play:

  • a resentment of such schools' success and yet a heavy reliance on that success;
  • a desire to bring these schools down to the lowest common denominator of the dysfunctional township schools; and
  • a recognition that the best hope of success of state-provided education lies in suburban government schools.

Why do they cause such a schizoid response? One reason is that there is an historic antipathy towards what are still derisively referred to as "Former Model C" schools - "bastions" of white, public education, in "leafy" suburbs.

Another is a resentment of the fact that the law obliges public schools to be governed by a school governing body (SGB), which is comprised of representatives of parents, teachers, non-teaching staff and students. By law, though, the number of parents has to outnumber the combined number of the other three categories by one. This is in recognition of the fact that, because schools are entitled, by law, to raise income through school fees, the money of the parents and the governance of the school must be administered by parent representatives.

It is the parent representatives that must be the compulsory office bearers such as Chair, Treasurer and Secretary. And this is a sober fiduciary, legal and moral duty. The magnitude of this obligation will be explored further.

As a result of this authority and obligation to govern, and the right to charge school fees, there is an inevitable tension between most successful SGBs and the GDE. SGBs must develop admission policies, which until recently, could not be interfered with by the GDE. An admissions policy cannot be contrary to the law, but it is not for the GDE to make that decision - it is a decision that lies with the courts.

At the same time, the GDE (not the individual schools) have a constitutional obligation to provide basic education to all. In Gauteng this task is becoming increasingly difficult. The influx of children from other provinces into Gauteng increases by double-digit percentages every year. Economic pressures on parents and dysfunctional schooling in other provinces provides the reasons for the influx.

As at February 2012, the GDE needed to construct 79 new schools and refurbish 12 Phase 1 schools (partially built) and 285 existing schools in Gauteng. According to Education MEC, Barbara Creecy, Gauteng has built more than 250 schools since 1994.

The GDE still experiences gaps in terms of insufficient infrastructure and space backlogs, especially where student enrolment exceeds design capacity. Disadvantaged schools lack established libraries, adequate sporting facilities and sufficient fencing. There is inadequate cleaning and minor maintenance around the schools and a lack of laboratories. There are uncompleted schools that were acquired from other provinces arising from the demarcation processes.

However, there are schools with an intake of well below 40% in Soweto because they are bad schools; and parents will do anything to get their children to functional schools in the suburbs. Often this requires expensive, dangerous and tiring commuting. I once had to persuade the GDE to find a different school for an Aids orphan from Katlehong! She would have had to take 6 taxis a day, which her grandparents could not afford, just because a department official was too lazy to refer her to the district officer who subsequently found her a school less than a kilometer away from her home, at fees of R 100 per annum!

Too few of the township schools, which are on student's doorsteps, have been revamped or properly and professionally staffed by the GDE. Little or nothing appears to happen, to the point where it appears that nothing is capable of happening to improve public schooling in townships.

One of the responses of the GDE is to try to force as many children as possible into functional suburban schools. This is where the GDE needs to confront the rights and obligations of the SGBs. Let me give you the example from my children's high school, which is indeed situated in a very leafy suburb.

With the change in the education system, the once very strict entrance criterion of residential zoning has become less strict. Very many suburban parents have put their children into private schools for fear of the (often misplaced) lack of quality of government education. Parents also now have a choice of government school. This means that many children who live in a suburb don't go to the school that is within walking distance.

This also means that schools, which were guaranteed to children from the surrounding suburbs, are now competing with private and other government schools for students. Consequently, a school's reputation is hard-won but easily lost. What this does mean, however, is that the children of domestic workers who work and/or live in a suburb have easy access to very good schools. These black children have an extraordinarily good chance for a secure and successful future. There are financial consequences for these schools and the parents, which I will deal with.

By law a school cannot turn away a child merely because parents cannot afford the school fees. The only way that a school can prevent the financially unfeasible admission of children whose parents cannot pay is through the schools' Admission Policies. Our school is typical of most such schools. The Admissions Policy gives automatic right of admission to children who traditionally came from feeder primary schools and immediate neighbouring suburbs, irrespective of their ability to pay the fees.

Domestics' children automatically benefit. As do those children who attend feeder primary schools, even though they may not for any other reason have been zoned for our school. These children are placed on the "A list" - compulsory placements.

The "B list" comprises those children who have applied for admission, but who do not meet the feeder requirements. Schools are are not obliged to admit these children, unless there are not enough children from feeder areas. The GDE insists that they be admitted in the order they applied. The financial issues and academic standards, which are interrelated, make this unfeasible.

In terms of the law (and our Admissions Policy), any parent who cannot afford to pay school fees may be exempted on a sliding scale. There is only one obligation: both biological parents must complete an exemption application form and supply all the supporting documentation requested to prove their inability to pay. With the government's support, no school is obliged to exempt or subsidise parents who do not prove their inability to pay.

However, one of the bitterest experiences I had in 13 years of sitting on SGBs has been to deal with parents who simply do not pay their school fees. I am not talking about those who cannot pay, and have applied for and were granted exemption. I am talking about those who either never completed an exemption application form, or never provided the full information required in terms of the application. I believe the foundation for this phenomenon - which is to be found in a variety of selfish parents - is a belief (not with any firm conviction, but rather a sense of entitlement) that a constitutional right to education could somehow justify their ethical selfishness.

Some parents do not want to provide proof of financial circumstances because they run cash businesses and do not want to declare their income, as they are not declaring their income to SARS. These parents are self-serving enough just to play the system for as long as possible, and place the value of education below that of two cars, DSTV, extraordinarily expensive cellphones and brand-name clothing.

Both as a governor and a parent, there is little more infuriating and unfair than to have your, not insignificant, school fees cross-subsidise the unworthy. By law, one can take all appropriate legal measures to recover the fees. However, between the sluggishness of the legal system, the inability to recover judgments through the recovery of movable property, and parents who lie about their residential addresses on application forms, legal processes are pretty toothless.

But here's the real kicker: in terms of the South African Schools Act, a school may not refuse admission or readmission to a child merely because the parent/s "cannot or have not paid school fees". The GDE simply does not understand the outrage of the moral equivalence afforded to parents who cannot afford to pay school fees to those who simply do not pay school fees.

The consequence of this is that parents can literally run up hundreds of thousands of rands of unpaid school fees. If legal measures, which can easily take over a year to complete, don't yield results, there is little else that can be done legally to force parents to pay school fees.

As a consequence, the SGBs I know, generally budget for about a 25% - 30% bad debt rate. Only about 10% - 15% of the bad debt is legitimately incurred by parents who apply for and obtain exemption. The remainder, which increase the rate to 25% - 30% is as a result of parents who simply do not pay, or refuse to pay . Seventy five percent of the parents, therefore, have to pay for 100% of the children. And a school is obligated by law to take in a sibling of a child whose parents have already failed to pay school fees.

So, in approving a budget at an annual general meeting (AGM) each year that allows parents to vote for the school fees for the following year, parents will have to consider a number of issues, such as:

  • the 25% of non-payers that have to be cross-subsidised;
  • a teacher: student ratio of 1:30 instead of the 1:40 that the GDE insists on although there is no provision for in law;
  • maintenance of school buildings which are owned by the GDE not the school;
  • salaries or additions to salaries to attract teachers that will allow the above ratio to be achieved;
  • textbooks that are not provided by the GDE.

This clearly means that no school can afford to have an unbudgeted, uncertain number of children who don't pay school fees. They would cease to exist.

Our school employs as many teachers under its auspices as the GDE provides in order to attain the ratio and to provide the best possible teachers.

For the 2012 financial year, the approved budget was R18-million, which included R3,5-million for maintenance and R800 000 for electricity, rates and water. Under Kader Asmal, the exemption for schools from municipal fees was withdrawn.

Of the R18-million rand budget, the GDE's financial contribution to the administration of the school is less than R 200 000. As a result, the school fees for 2012 are R23 000 for the year. This is very much in-line with our competitor government schools, even lower than most and, unusually, includes the abovementioned textbooks.

Achieving the right budgetary balance is extremely difficult. Schools should have a balance of bright kids, struggling and middling kids. They all benefit in different ways from each other. And contrary to the ongoing belief, and despite seeing for themselves, many GDE officials insist in referring to us derogatorily as a "white" school. Currently there are 427 Africans (50%), 101 Coloureds (12%), 275 Indians (32%) and 48 Whites (6%) at the school.

The school is one of the top 10 feeder schools (public and private) to Wits University. But it has an even more impressive achievement: it has consistently seen proportionately more of its matriculants graduate from Wits than any other school with matriculants who enter the University.

The hard work, aggravation and dedication required of SGBs to achieve this is nothing short of phenomenal. These schools are nurturing the societal backbone of the country's future, and yet the GDE (and the National Department of Basic Education) undermines them in bizarre and purposeless ways.

The Rivonia case is going to go on appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals in November 2012. Let's hope that the racism and blinkered nature of the High Court's judgment will be swept aside. Suburban, public education is too important to be left only in the hands of government.

Chantal Illbury and Clem Sunter make the following trenchant observation[i]:

"We have 28 000 schools in South Africa of which 5 000 are reasonable to excellent and 23 000 are dysfunctional to shocking. If the model of the 5 000 is used to raise the performance of the 23 000, that would be excellent. If the   5 000 are dumbed down, that would be the worst flag of all in terms of our long-term competitiveness."

This article first appeared in Focus, the Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation. The full edition can be accessed here - PDF.


[i] This appears on their website, set out in Managing the Strategic Conversation - Scenarios, Strategy and Tactics under the section on ‘The latest South African scenarios - Three Flags'.

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