Opinionista Ariane Nevin 30 April 2013

The Bigger Picture: why we care about the powers of School Governing Bodies

The Constitutional Court will soon hear the case of MEC for Education, Gauteng and others v Rivonia Primary School and others CCT135/12. The case is about whether the Gauteng department of education has the power to overrule a decision taken by the school governing body of Rivonia Primary School in relation to the admission of a Grade 1 pupil. Many readers may wonder how and why a case about a decision affecting one pupil at one school even made it to the Constitutional Court. What impact do the school governing body’s powers have and why does it matter whether the Gauteng department of education can override them?

Consider the bigger picture: the issue is not confined to one school in Rivonia. The court’s decision will impact on the education of thousands of pupils. Consider the example of a case that I am currently working on.

In the small town of Fochville, there is only one secondary school. Until recently, it was an exclusively Afrikaans-medium school. However, many pupils in the school’s feeder zone do not speak Afrikaans as their first language. Before reaching secondary school, they attended dual-medium primary schools and received English instruction. After substantial pressure from the Gauteng department of education, the school switched to dual-medium instruction and provided for one English-medium class in Grade 8 from 2012.

This English-medium class, comprised exclusively of black pupils, has now progressed into Grade 9 and was told at the beginning of 2013 that there will be no English-medium class from 2014. Therefore, they will either have to switch, in Grade 10, to Afrikaans-medium instruction or change schools. Their only alternatives are the two severely overcrowded secondary schools in the adjacent township of Kokosi (whose primary languages of instruction are Tswana or Xhosa respectively) or the schools in Carletonville, over 25km away.

The parents of these pupils, who also don’t speak Afrikaans, are excluded from virtually all aspects of school governance or participation. Parent meetings are conducted in Afrikaans and all communication from the school is in Afrikaans. The only communication that parents receive in English is about school fees. These parents have also not been notified of school governing body elections, and have thus been unable to seek election to the school governing body to effect change from within.

Other parents who live in Fochville but who cannot send their children to this school are forced to send their children to school in Carletonville. Sadly, these pupils have not been admitted to the school in Fochville on the basis that: they seek English- or dual-medium instruction, and the school does not have capacity to continue to provide for an English-medium class.

These pupils wake at dawn to walk up to 2km to a bus stop, sometimes further than they would have to walk to get to the School in Fochville. They then catch a bus to travel 25km on dangerous roads to get to school. At times the bus does not arrive, and the pupils either hitchhike the 25km, or their parents, many of whom earn less than the minimum wage and support large families, fork out R40 for private transport.

Meanwhile, the same school that will not admit these English-speaking pupils for “capacity” reasons is bussing in more than 100 Afrikaans-speaking pupils from Carletonville every day. The two buses probably pass each other on the way to and from their respective schools, trading and carting pupils from their hometowns to schools in distant towns.

The Gauteng department of education has offered assistance with further capacity-building at the school, including the construction of new classrooms and post-provisioning for new teachers. “No capacity”?

How is this sustainable?

How is this fair?

This is the result of an unreasonable language policy implemented by one school in a small town on the outskirts of the province. The body that determines both admissions and language policies at schools is the school governing body. This is where the two cases overlap.

School governing bodies, established by the 1996 South African Schools Act, are generally comprised of parents, teachers and non-teaching staff. Their establishment is based on the recognition that stakeholders other than the state – parents, teachers, community members – also have an important contribution to make when it comes to the education of our children.

School governing bodies provide a vital interface for consultation between the state and the school community when it comes to school governance. Through school governing bodies’ influence over school budgeting and expenditure, admissions and language policies, discipline, staff-appointments, the school community is allowed greater involvement in the education of its children.

A decentralisation of power and the involvement of the community in the education of its children are both good things. I am not advocating that we return all power over education to the state. School governing bodies play a crucial role, and they are here to stay. However, it is necessary to negotiate a balance between the state’s obligation to provide public schooling for all pupils, and the community’s right to have some say in the education of its children.

In Fochville, the school governing body has wrested power from the state and, in reserving the right to quality education for a few, is abusing this power to preserve inequality. Our children’s education is too important to be left exclusively to the whims of a school governing body without any reasonable mechanism for oversight by the state. As it stands, every time the state wishes to override a school governing body’s powers, it has to go to court. Is this is a reasonable oversight mechanism, or a feasible or reasonable use of the state’s time and stretched resources?

A balance must be struck. The foundation for this delicate negotiation between the powers of school governing bodies and state and the limitations thereof is the Constitution, which enshrines not only the right to education in section 29. Section 29, unlike other socio-economic rights in the Constitution, is framed as absolute and is not subject to progressive realisation. Children have a right to education, and this right must be realised now. All and any powers exercised within the context of public schooling need to be exercised within the confines of this right and the rights to dignity, equality and freedom.

Children have the right to attend schools close to where they live, and to receive instruction in a language that they can speak and understand. To force a child to hitchhike 25km to school every day because she does not speak Afrikaans is a breach of that child’s right to education and an affront to her dignity.

The Rivonia case may seem like it is about just one pupil, one school governing body and one school, but it isn’t. We care about the outcome of the Rivonia case because of the bigger picture: this decision will affect pupils and school governing bodies everywhere. DM


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