Judgement shows parents should be more involved in schools - FEDSAS

Association says a governing body can only be successful if the entire school community is involved

Judgement on religion in schools confirms governing bodies’ authority in terms of school governance, says FEDSAS

29 June 2017

Yesterday’s judgement on religion in schools is not only directive in terms of policy, but also serves as a renewed call to parents and the broader community to become involved in schools. In essence a public school belongs to the immediate community in which the school is situated. The school’s governing body is representative of this broader school community and has the authority through the Schools’ Act to make decisions regarding important aspects such as a school’s language and admissions policy as well as how religion is to be practiced at the school.

In his judgement in the South Gauteng High Court, Judge Wilem van der Linde emphasised the fact that religion may be practiced at schools but within a specific framework, including the Constitution and the Schools’ Act. At the core of the judgement is the fact that a specific religion may not be promoted at the exclusion of others.

“In the court application the Organisasie vir Godsdienste-onderrig en Demokrasie asked for some 77 orders against six schools. However, the court has only issued two of these orders,” explains Mr Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS). The governing bodies of the six schools are members of FEDSAS and the organisation supported the schools in the court case.

Colditz says FEDSAS’ argument that governing bodies can determine the rules for religious observances in their schools in accordance with the Constitution and the Schools’ Act, was upheld. The court also agreed with FEDSAS’ argument that the National Policy on Religion and Education does not constitute enforceable rules, but is rather an important document which provides guidelines on religion in education.

“In practical terms the two orders that were issued are to the effect that a school cannot promote only one or predominantly one religion to the exclusion of others or advertise that it is such a school that does promote the interests of one religion in favour of others.”

As with so many similar judgements, for example the Ermelo case on schools’ language policy and more recent judgements on the interference of the Gauteng Education Department in schools’ admission policy, the court confirms the same point over and over: the authority of a school governing body as a body that governs a school on behalf of the immediate school community.

“However, a governing body can only be successful if the entire school community is involved. Parents have to take part in SGB elections and must hold the SGB accountable on decisions that could influence their children’s future,” says Colditz.

Colditz says yesterday’s judgement has reconfirmed two core principles in FEDSAS’ approach to school governance: “The first is that the Constitution is the highest authority against which decisions are measured. The second is that public education can only be successful if all role-players are involved. Blaming the State for everything that goes wrong is simply to shift your responsibility. The success of schools influences the entire society, irrespective of whether you have children at school or not. The message is simple: Be involved in the public school in your community.”

The FEDSAS legal team, all experts in the field of education law, will analyse the judgement at a technical level in order to support governing bodies in a practical manner regarding the implications of the judgement.

Issue by Paul Colditz, CEO, FEDSAS, 29 June 2017

(FEDSAS is a voluntary association of school governing bodies of public schools and supports quality education in these schools. More than 2000 public schools are already members of FEDSAS).