South Africa’s former white schools are the most racially diverse — yet one population group is conspicuous by its absence
Preliminary research indicates that while white students almost exclusively attend former whites-only schools — and are vastly overrepresented in elite public and private schools in South Africa — black students remain sorely underrepresented in the country’s best schools.
‘Regardless of how we measure it, school segregation in post-apartheid South Africa remains very high along racial, as well as socioeconomic lines, and also from an internationally comparative perspective,” said Dr Rob Gruijters, assistant professor in the education faculty at the University of Cambridge, during an online seminar on school segregation in post-apartheid South Africa on Monday.
Gruijters, one of the authors of an unpublished, preliminary study, joined research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and co-author of the study, Dr Vijay Reddy, and professor of education at Stellenbosch University, Prof Jonathan Jansen, to discuss the results.
The study examines patterns of school segregation using data from the Department of Basic Education’s 2021 Annual School Survey and data from the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Based on the findings, Gruijters and Reddy argued that the “political settlement that emerged around the democratic transition in South Africa facilitated the hoarding of educational opportunities by the white minority and other socioeconomically advantaged groups”.
Gruijters explained that the research found that while “many, but not all, former white schools are now racially diverse to varying degrees, they are not representative of the population — mostly because white students remain overrepresented in these schools and black children, in particular, remain underrepresented in the country’s best schools”.
The research showed that in 2021, the average white student attended a school that was 68.5% white, 3.3% Indian, 8.5% coloured and 19.6% black.
“White students attended schools that were 68.5% white, even though white students only constituted 3.8% of the overall population of children who attended school in 2021,” said Gruijters.
Conversely, the average black student attended a school that was 0.9% white, 0.7% Indian, 2.0% coloured, and 96.4% black in 2021.
“The vast majority of black students’ classmates were also black, and that’s not surprising given that black students constitute a large majority of the school-aged population,” said Gruijters.
Similarly, the research indicates that Indian students and coloured students are quite highly exposed to other Indian and coloured students, “so these figures are indicative of quite high levels of segregation”, added Gruijters.
Additionally, former white schools now admit 54.4% black learners, while 29.4% of learners at those schools are white, 12.5% are coloured and 3.6% are Indian.
“Although many former white schools now admit learners from other groups, there is a lot of variation across schools in how many black learners are admitted,” said Gruijters.
However, very few white children attend former black, Indian or coloured schools.
Formerly black schools — the majority of all schools — remain almost exclusively black — “a main reason for this is that a lot of these schools are located in townships and rural areas where there is very little racial diversity,” said Gruijters.
Gruijters said that the research indicates that many South African schools may be racially diverse, but not integrated; they are not representative of the population.
“Former white schools are, on average, the most racially diverse, but they also contribute most to segregation, because white and Indian children remain strongly overrepresented in these schools, relative to their share in the population,” he said.
In the study, the researchers also examined the demographic composition of the 30 most elite public schools and the 30 most elite private schools in South Africa, based on their 2021 fees.
According to Gruijters, the research indicates that most of these elite public and private schools remain “white dominant”.
“It’s immediately clear that there are only a very small number of elite schools where black learners constitute the majority — in most schools they make up a relatively small minority of the student body,” he said.
The research shows that white students — who make up 3.8% of the overall population of children who attended school in 2021 — occupy 62% of the spaces in elite public schools and 55% of the spaces in elite private schools.
Indian students (1.5% of the population) are also overrepresented in public schools (6%) and elite private schools (13%).
“However, black students, who make up 87.2% of the population, remain vastly underrepresented in elite schools, and occupy only 20% of the spaces in elite public schools, and 27% of the spaces in elite private schools (27%),” said Gruijters.
Previous research has shown that the integration of former white schools in South Africa is often limited to more socioeconomically advantaged children from other racial groups, according to Gruijters.
In line with this, the HSRC study found that when white students have exposure to black classmates, they are generally from the most socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds.
The research also found that South Africa ranks very highly in terms of socioeconomic segregation between schools.
“In fact, South Africa has the second-highest level of socioeconomic segregation between schools among the 41 TIMSS countries, exceeded only by Turkey,” said Gruijters. DM
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