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Opinionista

Feeding frenzy — high school admissions and the 2019 election

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Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

The issue of feeder zones for schools is too important to become political fodder.

It’s only April but the die is already cast for 2020 school admissions. Applications are in and the wheels are turning to determine who will get prized Grade 8 places at elite government high schools across the country.

Exactly how those wheels turn is the subject of remarkably little debate in this country, given that, for principals, parents, pupils, and those urging transformation, it is the greatest stress point in the system.

The best-performing schools have as many as eight applications for every Grade 8 place and, it’s no exaggeration to say that the decisions on who gets accepted can be life-defining because the differences in educational outcomes between a high-performing school and a standard one in this country are disgracefully vast.

School admissions are subject to a multi-layered bureaucratic cake of Section 29 of the Constitution, the National Policy for Admission of Learners, provisions in the SA Schools Act and the various provincial education acts. Legally, the right of admission belongs to the head of the provincial education department and not to the school governing body.

In practice, the school governing bodies usually are allowed to get on with it and the principal will apply a tiered policy which goes something like: Siblings of current or past pupils, children of former pupils, the products of defined local feeder schools, and then the small remainder made up of “lucky packet” entrants on the basis of a primary school report, an interview and, usually, a degree of proximity to the school.

Schools are specifically not allowed to set an academic entrance exam (but can read the primary school report for an indicator of ability) nor can they reject anyone on grounds of race, religion or compliance with a self-proclaimed “school mission statement”.

Schools also, in theory, cannot reject anyone on ability to pay fees, which are now well over R30,000 a year in many instances. But if the principal admits too many pupils who cannot meet the fees, the school will rapidly slip in its ability to provide extra staff and decent facilities. So feeder schools become the self-regulator — if parents can afford the expensive primary in the privileged locality then they can probably afford the expensive high school in the same locality.

Periodically, an ANC figure lobs a grenade into this debate by proposing to do away with feeder zones because they perpetuate apartheid spatial planning and racial exclusivity.

In 2012, KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Senzo Mchunu wanted to scrap the zones and use “first come first served” instead. He was swiftly forced to retract by the threat of legal action.

The ambitious Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi is the latest entrant into the fray with a regulation expanding Gauteng school feeder zones from the previous 5km radius to 30km. This could mean, for example, that Parktown Boys High’s feeder zone could encompass Centurion, Soweto, Roodepoort and Boksburg or roughly eight million people.

The Western Cape education department currently does not prescribe feeder zones, but it heartily endorses them in practice by happily delegating definition of them to school governing bodies.

Feeder zones (or catchment areas or school districts) represent global best practice as it’s both logical and instinctive to want kids to be educated as close to home as possible. The school is placed firmly in its local community meaning shorter commutes, more parental engagement and a greater sense of identity.

But feeder zones mean good schools can become closed shops, always replicating themselves and denying state-funded benefits to a broader community. To the champions of transformation, it’s effectively a form of Group Areas.

As usual with our problems, in spite of what the politicians of all stripes will say glibly on the hustings, there’s no easy solution to this.

The dream would be to fix the entire system so that every school is desirable for parents and pupils, but there are few signs of that happening any time soon.

My tuppence is that a narrowly defined local feeder zone is an essential component for a properly functioning state school. To scrap, or unnaturally broaden, the concept because of its ideological flaws would lead to the disastrous outcome of reducing the quality of good schools without a consequent improvement elsewhere.

But we cannot be simplistically dismissive of the transformation imperative. We need to box smart.

One thought is to expand the feeder zone of a privileged school beyond its traditional local catchment to include several feeder primary schools in a specific less-privileged area with an obligation to accept a designated percentage of pupils from those schools. This “linked” area either should be chosen because there is an existing reasonable transport link for pupils or the school could be funded to provide bespoke transport services. One obvious benefit would be that teacher report back evenings, parent events and key governance meetings could be held in that area as well as at the school.

This “twinning” concept could be expanded into partnerships with designated high schools in the same area to share resources, sports fixtures, playing fields, technology, teachers, governance support and more.

It is unfair to expect one school’s staff and parent body to assume responsibility to fix an entire under-performing system, but it is not unfair to expect them to take on a responsibility to uplift and share with a narrowly defined set of partner schools in a specific area.

Critics will label this approach as patronising, talent-grabbing, undermining township schools, racial quotas and more. If they have a better solution on admissions that can work, however imperfectly, in the harsh reality of South African education then let the nuanced debate begin.

But spare us the simplistic ideological gestures designed to raise personal profiles and to win votes, except for one such move. Let’s immediately scrap any notion that a child can gain entrance to a state school because their parent went to the same institution. That’s archaic, nonsensical and the definition of perpetuating unearned privilege. DM

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