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Sunday, April 1, 2007
Muddy waters

Behind the security gates, reserved parking, and the secretarial assistant lurks an impenetrable tribe of close-knit teachers and their school principal. Added to their armoury is a secret organisation known euphemistically as the ‘School Governing Body’ (SGB), and together they are sealed behind a buffer zone called ‘school children’.
Virtually all, if any communication is conducted by remote control via the kids establishing a teacher, the child and finally a parent pecking order. Where knowledge is power, the least informed are powerless.
In the vacuum:
• A child is singled out in class because ‘he hasn’t paid his school fees’;
• School bullying and class disruption continue unabated;
• Those trying to achieve are called ‘losers’;
• A child is fined R100 for ‘damaging’ a book; and,
• A private company leverages the school hierarchy to gain business.

The school system is riddled with these sorts or practices. In many instances the parents are not consulted.
In one leveraged programme it is announced as ‘compulsory for all Grade 9 learners’. The ‘marks obtained during the Entrepreneurial Skills Challenge will be included in the continuous assessment for EMS (Economic Management Sciences). The course fee will be R55 per learner.’
This leverage works through the children, virtually forcing parents into acceding to various demands from the school: cake sales, civvies day, ‘compulsory’ sponsored walks; structured begging schemes; various fund-raising sports days, and other events. Learners suffer considerable psychological forces at the hands of, not only teachers but also their peers. Embarrassment and ridicule are powerful forces in any authoritarian system, where the criterion is conformity, not morality.
Costs to the parents go on mounting: school stationery, books and uniforms, compulsory but ad hoc project materials, and special subject levies, all add more to the financial load. As a result it is estimated that a parent must budget for a further 30% above the set school fee to cover the eventual costs of an academic year. So the school fee is R16 500 is it? Better make that R21 450. And while you are at it, budget for the income tax because you will actually have to earn at least R26 810. Those access bonds are going to come in handy (at least in the short term).
It is estimated that over 50% of our children are receiving inadequate education. Fingers are being pointed at the ‘failure of governing bodies’ to manage their affairs adequately; of teachers lacking the skills or sufficient commitment to their chosen career; and of parents failing to take an interest in their children’s education. In his budget speech Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said parents had a responsibility to join governing bodies to ‘stand up and make a contribution to the success of their childrens’ schools’; the government has committed no less than R87m to ‘improve the appraisal and development of teacher performance’ and to introduce ‘performance rewards’. A spokesman for the WCED claims that as the governing body is the most powerful organ in the system, parents need to get themselves a seat on it and seek solutions to what it admits is ‘a bit of a mess’. The government is never mentioned.
Yet the real reason for the necessary funding wizardry is obvious:
• The government pays only about 15% of the necessary costs to maintain a school and provide the necessary standards laid down by the government;
• Parents have to subsidise non-fee paying learners, not the government. This can boost fees by as much as 20%;
• The government taxes parents on the income they need to fund this lot; while,
• Teachers are underpaid, over-stressed, and classroom numbers exceed government’s own laid down guidelines.

In reality the current education system is a failure of government. Public schools are left to break the law in various ways to try and keep it working
It is put forward that the SGB is the most powerful body in the education system charged with determining school admissions policy, teacher:learner ratios, salaries and language medium, amongst other things within the bounds of the law and regulatory guidelines.
In terms of SASA [Section 23] it must comprise the school principle, educators, staff (non-educators), learners from 8th Grade or higher, and may include non-voting co-opted members. There must be at least one of each, but the numbers of parents must equal the total of all of the other members plus one. In other words parents clearly have the greater say. Learners are voted in by their respective Representative Council of Learners (RCL), a separate body through which learners may put forward their views, suggestions, and requests and so on.
The powers are there, for sure, but they are highly politicised and, in practice most parents actually have very little say. When did you last hear of a parent getting onto the SGB and successfully reducing the school fees? Many SGBs are well run, no doubt, and answer lots of searching questions. But that’s all that happens. Whatever is decided upon is largely within the confines of legislation, limited resources, lack of government funding, and enforced subsidisation of the poor by the private sector, all decided upon behind closed doors. Come the AGM every parent may well have his or her say in public debate, but most matters are determined as a fait accompli. There simply is no room for negotiation when government is failing in its mandate in terms of the law.
Besides it has become passé to complain about high school fees, since in a rather brainless way it seems to have become part of certain parents’ status symbols.
Meanwhile, it is distressing to see so many parents, particularly around the July/August period facing an intolerable scramble to get their children into Grade 8 – for the start of senior schooling. It’s an annual fiasco. Following the festival of open days, grand exhibitions and shop window dressing parents can be forgiven for their high expectations of having their child accepted at the school of their choice.
Instead, there is a more sinister intention at play in all the grand-standing. Soon the letters of refusal start to trickle in: ‘…the school is indeed fortunate to be in the position of having just on 700 applications’ says the High School. ‘Each application is carefully considered and a large number of criteria are weighed up before the final decision is made,’ it goes on.
One hardly need read paragraph two; you know what’s coming. This particular school had only 120 places available. Selection criteria are illegal and the head of the school would be liable to a fine and/or six months in prison.
Yet this school has been advertising its services this year in the papers for the 2008 intake for all (including the WCED) to see. By bringing in another 700 prospective learners for the 100 or so places it can muddy the waters, and pick and choose what it perceives are the best prospects: reliable fee-paying parents; with high academic achievers. Its matric results in five years will make good advertising copy while it can use the income to fund a percentage of non-fee paying parents to meet government integration policy and ensure ongoing state-funded teaching posts. By Nigel Benetton

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