Opinionista Tshepo Motsepe 21 September 2017

Black middle class must play a role in advancing education

How must government go about resourcing schools without sacrificing democratic school governance and facilitating further inequality and further alienation of mainly poor communities from claiming their schools as sites of liberation and empowerment?

I have been reflecting on the education transition that we find ourselves in as a country. Educational change is a complex process, and I do not want to venture into an academic exercise about its complexities. Instead, I want to unpack what is missing as the key driver of educational change in South Africa. Gone are the days of advocating for access to basic education as the only principle of struggle towards equality.

While we are still striving to improve a large number of schools located in black communities, the few “former” whites-only schools (the well-resourced schools) have experienced a class shift. Because of progressive admission laws, more learners are commuting to schools situated in the leafy suburbs around the country – this integration was a hard-won victory.

There is now a move away from working closely with teachers, principals, parents and education officials, in the form of the Collaboration Schools. The handing over of control of our public schools in the Western Cape to private entities is both scary and something that should not be allowed to happen. This transition is a dangerous move away from helping to empower poor communities and teachers to be at the centre of educational change.

The response of the Basic Education Department has been dismal – it has been to do nothing at all. The Western Cape Education MEC’s determination to palm off impoverished schools to private actors will have disastrous effects in the long term.

How then must government go about resourcing schools without sacrificing democratic school governance and facilitating further inequality and further alienation of mainly poor communities from claiming their schools as sites of liberation and empowerment?

What is to be the role of the private sector in improving public education? I must say there have been in the past incredible partnerships that have not only inspired hope and empowered teachers and parents; but partnerships that have been meaningful in turning the tide against the effects of apartheid education. Why then the sudden change? We were on the right track, young teachers are adding much needed energy into the system, a cohort of energised and creative principals is emerging, efforts by Equal Education in improving public school infrastructure are paying off; society is united in the call for seeing improved results and learning conditions in our schools. We have reached the crescendo moment, but sadly some among us don’t see that the educational change process that was initiated at the dawn of democracy is now starting to take form.

Equal Education has for the past nine years doggedly waged a campaign to compel the State to #FixOurSchools, to get rid of the last and more visible remnants of Bantu Education: the absence of safe and dignified learning spaces. For us, this was the start, and we can safely say that we are now getting to the root of the problem in fixing education in South Africa: this country is engaged in a class struggle for resources.

It has been distressing to see the new emerging black middle class enroll their children at profit-driven private schools such as the Curro chain. Rather than enrolling their children in public schools and making an investment in public education in the form of school fees, the earnings of the black middle class are diverted to the JSE-listed Curro Holdings.

Here is a very basic proposal; the black middle class in South Africa needs to do what the white middle class did when it came to education: invest in public school education. Do so by paying the school fees, pursue sponsorships on the school’s behalf, and fund-raise among yourselves. Support your old school too. Meet government halfway.

As Equal Education heads toward its 10-year anniversary, we as a movement are engaged in reflection and soul searching. One of the questions we are asking ourselves as members of Equal Education is what has been our contribution to the South African education landscape? An environment conducive to quality teaching and learning was denied to most South Africans for many years by the apartheid regime, and far too little had been done by this democratic government to undo this wrong before the school infrastructure law was passed – a law fought for by Equal Education members.

Our schools remain sites of struggle. On a daily basis poor black learners must fight to access a classroom – either walking dangerously long distances to school, or learning in structures that pose an immediate threat to their safety. As if that were not enough, the battle for resources extends to the availability of suitably qualified teachers – teachers we want working in dignified conditions.

The South African education system must be re-imagined to resolve these class differences. We urge donors to desist from seeking control of our public schools. Instead, we must continue to strengthen the democratic nature of our public schools. Those who wield power within the state must, for one, urgently reconfigure the education funding model – the current model does not advance equality in education or move us far away enough from the residue of apartheid education. This re-imagining is urgently needed to advance equality. Especially now when it’s becoming clearer as to what we need to do to #FixOurSchools. DM

Tshepo Motsepe is the General Secretary of Equal Education, a social movement fighting for equality in the South African education system.

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