Where are the parents?

Mosibudi Mangena says SGBs function poorly in most township and rural schools


Hundreds of pupils and their teachers routinely arrived late for the start of lessons in the mornings at Lavela Secondary School in Zola North, Soweto. Some would arrive as late as an hour after the start of the school day.

It took the spectacle of the horrified MEC of Education in Gauteng, Barbara Creecy, standing at the gate of this school watching this mass late coming, to bring this scandal to the attention of the country. Creecy threatened, rightly, fire and brimstone if the situation is not corrected immediately and the following morning, police were at the school to add muscle to her threats.

The obvious and immediate questions that come to mind are: Where are the parents? What do they think and say about that wholly unacceptable situation at the school of their children? Does Lavela Secondary School have a school governing body? Why don't we hear anything about the governing body in this mess? Why do we need the whole MEC of education and the police to attend to a matter like this?

The month of March 2012 is devoted to the elections of school governing bodies throughout the country. These governing bodies bring together teachers and parents for the proper running of schools.

If the truth be told, the functioning of governing bodies is poor in most township and rural schools. These are also the areas where parental involvement in the education of their children is either non-existent or hopelessly poor. Governing bodies work much better in suburban and more affluent areas of our country.

Democracy works better in circumstances where various interest groups in society are able to contest and contend meaningfully. If some of the actors in any sphere of life - be they political parties or companies - are too powerful or too weak, democracy is hobbled.

In the South African educational sector, teacher unions are strong, while the organisation and participation of parents in the majority of our schools are weak. So, there is no meaningful interaction between teachers and parents. In fact, teachers do as they please. To make matters worse, the strongest teacher union is politically aligned to the governing party, compromising the role the government, as an employer, could play in counterbalancing the actions of the unions.

It is not the strength of the unions that distorts the situation, but the weakness of parental organisation that requires serious and concerted attention. There was hardly a whimper from parents in the Eastern Cape recently as teachers went on a protracted go-slow that left children unattended, idle and free to roam the streets.

There are many complex factors, past and present, which account for this state of affairs in black communities. They include the trek of the more educated elements from these areas; the sending of their children to private and suburban schools; the past denial of blacks of a meaningful participation in school governance by the oppressive regime, which stunted the development of a culture of serious involvement in this sector, and the introduction of school governing bodies by the democratic government without any efforts to deal with this stunted culture.

Among South African blacks, the culture of supporting and maintaining the churches is much stronger than that for their schools. Zimbabweans are strong in both.

I remember when my children attended schools in Zimbabwe during our exile days in the eighties and early nineties, how, as parents, we were deeply involved in the affairs of their schools. Although primary schooling was free, parents were always busy raising funds to replenish library books; build extra classrooms or a big hall and inviting the department of education to hand over the buildings to the state; buy and maintain a vehicle for school administration or embarking on some such big projects for the advancement of the educational interests of our children.

When I left Zimbabwe for home in 1994, we were involved in a big fundraising campaign to buy a bus for the high school where my daughter was a learner.

The Lavela or Eastern Cape phenomena would have been unimaginable in that Zimbabwean situation. With the difficulties that Zimbabwe has gone through in recent years, one does not know if the scenario described above still holds.

It appears that unless parents in the majority of schools in South Africa get better organized through the school governing body mechanism and therefore put themselves in a better position to interact with both the teachers and the department of education, the mess in our schools is not likely to be resolved.

Better organized parents would be able to restrain injurious teacher union actions; call to order departmental officials who do not deliver books or release funds to schools in time, or the corrupt ones who fiddle with educational resources.

Conducting school governing body elections this March without strengthening them, will see the maladies of our education system continuing unabated.

Mosibudi Mangena is Honorary President of Azapo and a former Minister of Science and Technology.

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