South Africa

Rivonia Primary ruling: government schools, last bastions of social cohesion

By Stephen Grootes 7 October 2013

The Rivonia Primary Case, which saw the Constitutional Court rule that government, through the Basic Education Department, has the final say in determining class sizes in government schools, is a story of nuance. Several issues are at play - from government’s duty to provide services to poorer people, how the middle classes educate children, to who has the authority over government buildings that are run by governing bodies through to the legal complexities of ensuring quality education for the highest number of children. Somewhere in this tangled mess is the impact of the ruling on social cohesion; on how much time we spend with people different from ourselves, and whether our children will understand diversity. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

(Conflict alert: Grootes has two children. Neither of them at school yet. But he and his wife discuss this issue on a daily basis. With anyone who has a view.)

I’ve always found that discussions around children have a certain heat that other conversations do not have. It starts when you first mention you (as a couple) are pregnant. Inevitably, within a couple of a minutes, someone will ask your female partner if you’re going to have a Caesar or a natural birth. The argument that follows is loaded in so many ways. A few years later, it becomes around whether you’re going to send your children to government or private schools. Again the same heat ensues.

After many pots of tea (until another brave dad asks for a beer first) at various kiddie-friendly restaurants, wondering whether my wife will notice the three-year-old is now licking someone else’s ice lolly when I’m “on duty”, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is because whatever you decide for your kids is somehow a judgment, in the way that getting a tattoo with that particular shade of purple is not.

The fact that people have become so interested in the Rivonia Primary Case is somehow connected to all of this. If you decide on a government school, you’re failing your kids by not giving them the best possible start in life. If you go private, you’re condemning your kids to growing up only with people like themselves, and the possibility that by thirteen, they won’t want to be seen in the CR-V with you, because that’s so last year’s model.

For many people, the best possible option is a good government school, with an active governing body, that is able to employ more teachers (known in the trade as Governing Body Teachers), to keep class sizes down. When it comes to the quality of the education your children get, virtually every factoid there is points to the teacher/kid ratio as being the biggest deciding factor.

So, at its heart, the Rivonia case asks whether these good government schools, in middle-class areas, will continue to be good, or whether they will be forced to take more kids, and thus “go bad”. Which would mean parents who could, would yank their kids outta there. The Independent Schools Association of South Africa has previously said that when Gauteng Education MEC, Barbara Creecy, was quoted as saying 40 kids in a class was “okay”, they received hundreds of phone calls within the hour from parents looking for private schools.

At the moment, when you bring up children in South Africa, the only place they are really going to spend time in a properly diverse environment, with people from all classes and areas, is at school. When trying to form a shared nationhood, in all countries, school is crucial. Look at the Americans and their Pledge of Allegiance. In countries across Europe, schools are used to bring people together, even when they come from different backgrounds. There’s a reason the French are still the French.

Our government, and society in general, has already tacitly acknowledged this by trying to have flag-raising ceremonies at all schools across the country. That’s a full realisation that the only place to get everyone on the same hymn-sheet, or at least to agree to the same set of rules, is at school.

And there can be no doubt that bringing up our kids in a diverse school environment is a good thing. They get to see different viewpoints, to realise that not everyone looks, thinks or acts like them. Not everyone uses knives and forks, for example. This is surely important. The biggest lesson of all for South Africans is to tolerate our differences. When foreign visitors who come to work here for a time are invited to official functions, they often remark on the number of dietary options available for them, or the fact that no one ever writes “wife” or “husband” on an invitation, but will always use the gender neutral “partner”. That’s our shared tolerance at work, and shows our society is changing.

If class sizes in government schools rise significantly, middle-class parents will simply opt for private schools from the start [that’s assuming middle-class parents can still afford private education! Ed] and that the entire process of building social cohesion will end. We will lose probably our best option for trying to build a national consensus.

But there would be huge financial impacts as well. If richer kids leave government schools, their money leaves with them. Which means there won’t be so many governing body teachers. And it’s not just the rich kids who benefit from those teachers; the poorer kids at those schools do as well. So they will lose out. The entire school would also lose out from losing parents who have the resources, the time and the energy to make those schools good. From running sports days to fund-raising fetes, to making costumes for the annual play, all of these things are usually done by parents who can. If they are gone, everyone is the poorer for it.

And this would happen at exactly the wrong time for these schools, as they would be trying to cope with larger numbers of children.

But with all of that said, the Rivonia Case is also not an indication that Armageddon is about to descend upon us. Because the case wasn’t brought by a department that was actually trying to increase class sizes because it had to. This was a case brought by the actions of a single Gauteng Education official, who behaved badly. The official tried to force a child into a certain class at a certain school.

In other words, while it was an important matter of principle for both the school and the department (which really could not accept earlier rulings that it did not have control over admissions policies of schools it built and pays for stand), it did not come about because of a desire, or a need from the Department to increase class sizes now. Rather this ruling allows it, should it ever need to. Which means that for most schools, nothing will change for some time yet.

The other point is that the private school sector is growing very quickly at the moment, and their prices are coming down. Most private schools are not the types that start with the word “Saint” in their name. Rather they’re smaller, co-ed operations. In other words, they’re becoming more diverse as well. And Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, is not ever going to stop this from happening. She appears to have supported private schools almost whenever she could. She knows, and government knows, that the more people who pay for their own kids to be educated, the fewer kids have to be paid for entirely by government. So that process will continue.

All of this means there should be more options than ever in the next few years. And that can only be a good thing for education in general, and more importantly, my kids. DM

Grootes spends his weekends running around after two children. During the week, he recovers by hosting the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and being the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News. He has found that being a parent is the best, and possibly only cure, for his addiction to politics.