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Sunday, April 1, 2007
What lies beneath?

Ask anyone about the rules and regulations concerning schooling in South Africa, and you’re not going to get a straight answer. Even officials are unable to provide clear guidelines. Yet what is clear is that many schools are breaking the law to try and make the system work. Even the government has yet to fulfil its own obligations in terms of the law — still 12 years after the introduction of democracy.
The plethora of legislation (there are at least 16 Acts of parliament I have found that govern education in this country — see accompanying story on the law) is fostering confusion and inconsistency in the way educational bodies are operating. The relationship between these various pieces of law are at best impenetrable, at worst highly obscure. Legislation is littered with inconsistencies:
• Every child of school-going age (essentially from the ages of 7 to 15 years) has the right to equal access to education, but there is a vast disparity in the quality of both teachers and facilities right across the nation;
• Provinces are not required to have feeder zones, yet every learner has to be accommodated at his or her nearest school;
• Everyone has a right to education, including non-citizens, yet those locally take precedence;
• A learner has the right to be educated in the language of his or her choice, but this must be ‘reasonable’, which means it may not happen;
• It is illegal to pay state employees extra subsidies, yet you can apply to do so;
• You may not discriminate in any way, but must ensure the school is properly funded.

Schools and their Governing Bodies are doing their best to meet the intentions of government but are often left to fend for themselves in an environment that requires equity on the one hand and a high level of self-funding on the other. Schools are not malicious in their interpretation of the law; they are just trying to survive and run a business in the most practical expedient way.
At almost 5,4% of gross domestic product South Africa has one of the highest rates of government investment in education in the world. For the new tax year it is set to hand over R105,5 billion, by far the biggest slice of this year’s R534 billion budget. But will throwing all this money at it be the answer, or is the foundation wrong?
The starting point is The Constitution. This is the ‘supreme law’ of the Republic of South Africa. Any law or conduct that is inconsistent with it is invalid, and the obligations imposed by it must be fulfilled [Section 2]. It comprises the Bill of Rights, in terms of which no one may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone [Section 9(4)]. A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child [Section 28(2)]. Everyone has the right to basic education [Section 29(1)]……in the official language of their choice [Section 29(2)]. And, also relevant here, is that everyone has the right to any information held by the state [Section 32(1)], and a public school is part of the state.
Viewed holistically the Bill of Rights means that education must be free for all children of school going age, since denying access on the grounds of non-payment would be ‘invalid’.
Yet millions of parents are having to pay fees, largely because government is unable to meet its mandate to ensure equal access to quality education. So those that are forced to pay school fees are, in essence, being forced into providing better education for their children — even if it means they are sitting with rising debt on their mortgage bond or expensive loan facilities.
The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union has recently started calling for free education for all. Its provincial secretary says the current system “isn’t working.” Increasing numbers of teachers are taking sick leave, allegedly many for stress related disorders. The union is calling for lower class numbers and for its teachers to be better supported. At least they have a union; parents don’t. For every stressed teacher I’ll bet there’s 100 stressed parents. The main source of the stress is the desire to do something right being frustrated by an incompetent, unworkable system.
In the case of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED), at least, there is another problem. This concerns the principal of so-called ‘feeder zones’. Since the WCED has ruled against them — which any province is allowed to do in terms of the regulations — any child from anywhere in the province, regardless of place of residence or travel distance has the right to equal access to any school. This is obviously a problem because it would be impossible for 100 000 children, say, to attend Rondebosch Boys’ High School. This is one of many inconsistent and, indeed unworkable rules concerning education. Indeed, in a known case one parent, whose child would only have to walk 50 metres to this same school, has to be driven some six kilometres to Wynberg Boys’ High. One despairs at the implications of the time and fuel being wasted. Then again it is known some boys travel 40 kms to attend Rondebosch Boys’ from outlying areas.
This is just a local example of a range of many situations being played out daily across the nation: parents struggling to gain a place for their children; teachers lacking sufficient skills to do their job; and schools failing to maintain discipline, are amongst a host of conflicting issues. Even a huge book could not do justice to what is going on in the South African education system. Anecdotal experience and relevant commentary is all we have space for in this article. But anyone completing a doctorate on the subject would essentially come to the same conclusion: the education system isn’t really a ‘system’ at all, it’s a mess, a free for all that can only get worse.
One school, in refusing a child, told the parent to ‘go to the nearest school in your area.’ The child was turned away on the basis of academics (illegal); was told to go the ‘nearest school’ (illegal in the Western Cape); and was sent to a school that specifically did not teach in the language of choice on the part of the learner (also illegal).
Indeed, this school, and the principals of two other major schools in Cape Town incorrectly asserted the city was part of a feeder system. Such arrangement, provided for in some provinces, sets geographical boundaries for learners who are entitled to schooling in “their area” but not in others. In such provinces there are only three reasons a child may be refused entrance to a school:
• His parent applied ‘too late’;
• He does not have a transfer certificate from the previous school; or
• Lives ‘out of area’.

In the case of the WCED this third reason does not apply.
If the schools either don’t know the laws, or deliberately break the rules, how are parents expected to understand what is going on?
According to government statistics there are currently 12,3 million learners attending school. Since there are 386 600 teachers this indicates an average teacher:learner ratio of about 32. There are 28 485 schools (28 422 public, 1 101 independent and 63 ‘unknown’). Independent schools only have about 340 000 students, but they enjoy a better teacher:learner ratio of about 17.5:1. Though the public school average is 32.6 there are plenty of examples of up 60 or more per class, once again indicating the deplorable disparity in the way education is being dished out in this country. Even where there are better ratios it is known the facilities are often highly wanting.
There are also about 1 million students enrolled in the 24 state-funded tertiary institutions – comprehensive schools, technical colleges and universities.
Some public schools are ‘creaming’ the situation by ramping up fees to such an extent they are de facto private in all but name. They apply academic criteria and interviews as part of their screening process (which is completely illegal). For a start refer to The Constitution [Sections 1, 9, 28(2) and 29 (1)]; and the SASA [Sections 5(1) and (2)], and yet various practices of this nature are widespread across the nation. The WCED is not very amused but there seems little it can do. How do you prove the real reason a child failed to get into a particular school? And even if you could where would it get you?
Since many schools conduct interviews of children in their last year of junior school, they assess their academics achieved in Grade 6. In itself this is pretty meaningless, apart from being illegal. After all how can you fully judge a child at the age of 12 in all respects as to what he or she might be like at 14? Two years is a massive difference to those of a young age, and in any event, results can be misleading, failing to track different rates of maturity, different teaching quality, family circumstances, and so on – many factors of which can easily change in a matter of months.
But this is what’s happening – this is the reality. Interestingly, this approach also holds for acceptance into university. Since interviews are conducted before matric, academic achievement during Grade 11 can actually be more important than a learner’s final results. What this infers is that schools must compete for the best teachers to provide Grade 6 and Grade 11 education.
This is creating another serious problem: competition for scarce resources firstly within the public school system itself, and secondly between the public schools and the independent (formerly termed ‘private’) schools.
There are no controls (obviously) on how many teachers an independent school may employ, nor indeed how much it may pay them. School fees can range from R40 000 to R60 000 a year, plus extras – even more at some of the ‘more exclusive schools’. This provides plenty of cash in the kitty to compete for the best teachers.
It makes it very difficult for public schools. To some extent their salary structures are controlled by the rates paid to government-appointed teaching posts. It is quite a complicated, evolving beast. The head of the school receives about R12 000 per month. Teacher salaries are based on ‘Post level’ qualifications, plus experience. On post level 1 they can start at about R8 000 a month, rising each year, for example to R13 000 a month after 25 years. Yes, that’s more than a headmaster. Higher qualifications place teachers in post level two, and three, depending, with of course, a higher salary.
As an example, here’s the mathematics in the simplest terms. A school of 520 pupils receives funding for 16 teacher posts (including the headmaster) plus three support staff, a total of R1,1m. The SGB sets total number of teachers required at 40, plus 17 support staff. The difference are the so-called ‘SGB Posts’ and together with some maintenance costs add a further R6,7m to the budget. The school also receives R86 000 from government for ‘maintenance’ but, as it says, this only covers the cost of the stationery. Being a ‘rich’ school it is slotted in quintile 5 so gets a further R125/child. The upshot is that parents have to fund 85% of the running costs of the school out of after-tax income.
Comments one school principal, “This is simply not sustainable in the long term.” At his school they pay ‘subsidies’ to teachers to keep the peace as between government-appointed and SGB-appointed teachers. Government teachers are paid direct by the State but may receive additional attendance fees, payments for administrative duties or travel allowances paid to them direct by the SGB. Post level 1 teachers may get between R200 to R1 000 per month extra through this mechanism; Post level 2 from R1 000 to R2 000; and, level 3 from R2 000 to R3 000. While this is illegal, in terms of the SASA permission may be requested to do so [as amended by Section 38A].
This is a good example of where the law isn’t working, but where schools have to face reality and compete on the open market for quality staff. Either way, it has to be funded by the parents.
If the public school pushes up fees to attract better teachers, or at least to reduce the educator:learner ratios (to improve teaching quality), it may end up with more non- or partial fee-paying customers. Even the WCED is out of touch. A spokesperson was taken aback at the level of fees parents were being asked to pay: around R8 000 a year for junior school is typical; and, from R10 000, up to R16 000 a year for senior school.
Such schools also face funding restraints because, unlike the independent schools, they are forced to accept non-fee paying learners. The government does not make up the difference. Any shortfall caused by non-fee paying parents must be covered by the other parents who are forced to pay school fees.
Says another school principal, “We allow for 20% extra in our budgets to cater for non-fee paying parents. Above that we simply cannot accept a child, even though it is illegal.” You need to be illegal to survive. It’s crazy
“Otherwise,” she says, “you risk passing the critical point when you start losing fee-paying parents.”
Evidently this happened both to Cape Town High School and Sea Point High School. The numbers of non-fee paying learners reached beyond the critical point. Parents refused to pay R1 000 fees for the services the schools were unable to provide. Why should their kids waste time in classes of 55 or more, and be subject to uncontrolled disruption and bullying, and falling teacher performance? Instead they voted with their feet, and took their children and their fees elsewhere. Evidently these schools now have no income but from the state, which, judging by the example earlier is only 15% of what they need to provide equal educational opportunities for everyone. It’s a sort of post-apartheid apartheid — it is very short-sighted and, quite frankly, highly damaging to the economy.
Comments a headmaster, “There are many schools where they even battle to collect an annual school fee of just R100! So it was a bit of political manoeuvring when government decided to declare such institutions as non-fee paying.
“But now this status is being extended considerably. Indeed, schools are finding that it may be to their advantage to be lax in fee collection, entitling them to enjoy non-fee paying status and receive the additional R800/year per child from the government.”
There are now just over 5 million learners (or 40% of the total) attending 13 856 non-fee paying schools. If this continues we will end up with a more demarked public/private system. Low fee-paying schools will fall into the non-fee paying category and remain public schools; funding for other schools will become less of an issue as certainly the current 15% government contribution will continue to dwindle. Such public schools may well decide to convert completely to private. The problem here would be the fact the state owns the land and most of the buildings of such schools, although the parents are paying for the maintenance. It is impossible to predict if this will happen, nor how it would be managed if it did.
But something has to happen. In the words of the WCED, “It might seem a mess, but it is there for a reason: we do not want to make the law so exact. This would not be appropriate in a developing country. We need to allow for particular circumstances on a national, provincial and local level; and to avoid prescribing strict rules so to allow for a degree of self-determination, but within the parameters of our constitution.”
Well, yes, I suppose so. But in this scenario it is very hard to criticise any public school for breaking the law. Indeed, from a philosophical point of view, it must be questioned whether a law is a good one if the majority of those to whom it relates have to break it in order for the system to creak along in a vaguely workable state. By Nigel Benetton

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:20.3 1st April, 2007
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