All our futures: The new schools Act

The South African Schools Act (1996) fulfills the dreams of generations of anti-apartheid activists.
The South African Schools Act (1996) is a landmark measure which, on the face of it, fulfils the dreams of generations of anti-apartheid activists: it establishes a unitary education system under a single national ministry of education; it abolishes corporal punishment; it makes schooling compulsory and specifically rules out inability to pay fees as a reason for excluding any child from school; it abolishes Model C schools and puts ail schools on an equal funding basis - at last the pernicious disparities between what was spent on black, brown and white children wife be ended. All of which sounds wonderful, which is presumably why the Democratic Party reversed its opposition to the bill in committee to give it support in the end.

Yet the fact is that the new Act represents a virtual legislative coup by education committee chairman, Blade Nzimande.

When the education minister, Professor Sibusio Bengu, began to draft his Bill he was strongly cautioned by a team of foreign educational consultants that he must, at all costs, avoid radical "levelling-down" solutions: the greatest disaster would be to make state schools a byword for uniform mediocrity, for this would trigger an unstoppable movement towards private schooling by all who could afford it. The state system, thus bereft of its best teachers and pupils, would then go into a decline which would be very hard to halt. As a result Bengu consulted widely and carefully crafted a Bill which took into account the interests of a wide range of stakeholders.

Nzimande effectively tore up this draft and substituted his own so that in committee the National Party and DP were actually arguing to defend Bengu's original Bill against an ANC majority which followed its South African Communist Party chairman rather than the minister. Nzimande's strong leveller instincts were, however, carefully dressed in terms of the sort of principles which made opposition very difficult to sustain. Whether the Act will be as successful in halting the predicted bolt towards the private sector remains to be seen.

As usual, an Inordinate amount of attention was paid by all sides to the small percentage of schools that are designated as Model C, with much angry rhetoric swapped over such side issues as the apparent disappearance of the prefect system. Far more significant for the future of the country is the state of the old black Department of Education and Training schools where, inevitably, the overwhelming majority of the country's children will be found both now and in the future.

The problem of governance

Critical to such schools is the question of governance. The legacy of apartheid lies heavy upon them In the shape of such basic problems as under funding, a shortage of classrooms with consequent overcrowding, textbook shortages, inadequate and ill repaired facilities, a lack of qualified teachers and so on. But the most crucial problems of all in such schools today relate to questions of discipline and authority. In effect, the 1976 Soweto rising inaugurated a 20 year crisis of authority which shows no sign of ending. Teachers and principals were frequently perceived as government stooges, not worthy of respect; some were attacked and killed, many others intimidated and more still simply pushed aside and ignored. Township schools were racked by continual boycotts and stayaways. Parents frequently despaired of such schools and sent their children away to the [rather less disturbed] schools in the so-called homelands.

The devastating effects of this period are still with us. The schools' governing bodies, the school boards - comprising parents, teachers and the principal - have seldom had much success in restoring authority and discipline in schools. The author, a black parent herself, can attest to the state of near despair felt by many black parents over the education on offer to their children in most township schools. In many such schools political struggles continue between the radical South African Democratic Teachers' Union and its older rivals such as the Transvaal United African Teachers' Association and the Natal African Teachers Union, with the Congress of South African Students and other ANC aligned youth associations also often a force. Sometimes political parties themselves get involved. SADTU sometimes campaigned for the abolition of principals, and school inspectors were frequently chased away. Most parents quickly drop from view when such battles start.

A more general problem, however, is that of teacher de-motivation. The authority of school principals has eroded to the point where teachers generally decide for themselves when to attend classes - which are frequently skipped altogether. Teachers often spend lengthy periods sitting outside, reading and writing their private assignments, and some even frequent the city and shebeens during school hours. [Some school principals are guilty of similar truancy.] Pupils -the new politically correct term is "learners" - have only the rudiments of self discipline to fall back on and a Lord of the Flies world can easily develop. Not only is there no culture of learning in such schools but in many there is a positive culture of non-learning. (The author can gauge the results from her own nine year old, educated to date in Model C and private schools. At Grade II his general scholastic level is superior to that of Standard 5 pupils in Soweto.)

A new framework

The Schools Act attempts to provide a new framework of governance, abolishing the old and generally unlamented school boards. The boards, intended to function between the schools and the provincial department of education, consisted of up to 12 members elected for a period of three years, and normally included parents-though not any of the other stakeholders in education such as industry, the churches or the wider community. Probably no system of school governance would have been equal to the fierce political turbulence of the 1980s but the boards were in any case too weak, with power to administer funds for building and equipment maintenance but with no real control over how a school worked, teacher appointments or internal discipline.

Not surprisingly, the boards were seldom able to attract substantial people willing to exercise such limited powers on an unpaid basis, and at the majority of black schools governing bodies existed in name only.

The new Schools Act retains the centralist bias of the old system in that such key questions as drawing up curricula and syllabi, the overall allocation of resources and the last word over teacher appointments remain firmly with the national and provincial governments. Under them every public school is endowed with a two tier governing structure, a parent-teacher association for primary schools and parent-teacher-student association for secondary schools, with a management executive consisting of the school principal, his deputies and heads of department, implementing the PTA-PTSA decisions.

Under the Act the PTSAs have authority over finance, discipline, maintenance and teacher appointments. Their roles and powers include among others the following:
  • Policy formulation
  • Ensuring more equitable utilisation of existing resources
  • Provision [via community fund raising] of such facilities as gymnasia
  • Determination of curricula, time schedules, admissions, language and religious policies.
  • Drawing up a constitution, and the mission statement of the school
  • Keeping school records
  • Preparing annual budgets.

Are parents up to it?

The Act implicitly recognises that the exercise of such functions may be beyond many PTAs-PTSAs and therefore provides for an ambitious capacity-building programme in which members will receive training in democratic decision making/ financial management, conflict management; communication skills, how to identify school needs, and so on. A second tier of training will be provided for management executives [school development, staff management, team and leadership skills etc] and a third for the school students representative councils. There is even provision for training within the wider community in parental skills, parental involvement in school affairs and so forth. R8 million of Reconstruction and Development Programme money has been committed in Gauteng alone so that this training effort - to be handled by non-governmental organisations over four years -can be launched in 1997, with similar efforts mounted elsewhere.

What is one to make of this?

No one doubts that parental involvement is both desirable and necessary. A good example of what it can achieve may be seen at Katlehong High School where the principal, Mr Mamadi, sits on the PTSA with 12 parents, six teachers and six learners. It helps no little that 11 of the twelve parents have themselves passed matric and the twelfth has a degree.

The PTSA has been active in fund raising, in interviewing and appointing teachers, drawing up a school budget, conflict resolution, and it has formulated a school mission statement. !t has attempted to gain maximum parental involvement: parents are now compelled to collect their children's quarterly reports in person and sign for them. This not only means parents cannot claim ignorance of their children's performance but, since report day is timed to coincide with a general parents' meeting, it has increased attendance at those meetings- Its most tangible achievement has been its successful fund raising from parents to renovate the school buildings, with doors and windows replaced, walls painted, and so on. Not surprisingly, Mamadi is optimistic about the future.

Others are more sceptical. Ms Sheila Mabuza, the principal of Andrew Chakane Junior School in Diepkloof-Soweto, is able to point to such PTSA successes as a school cleaning campaign, a Bible day and so on, but she is concerned that the PTSAs will face many of the same difficulties as the old school boards, especially since most schools will have to depend on parents of low educational level, often lacking in knowledge and confidence. And like the boards, the PTSAs will have unpaid members serving for only three year terms.

Political problems remain

Moreover, the PTSAs and PTAs have far less power than it may seem on every significant matter - on the curriculum, language, religion, teacher appointments, admissions, money and just about everything else, the education department has the final say. Indeed, even the composition of a PTA or PTSA has to be agreed by a member of the provincial government. In practice the PTAs and PTSAs will, in the main, be mere forums and all real power will be either in the hands of the education department or the management executive.

A key question throughout the school system is how fees are to be charged and collected. Given that schools are specifically forbidden to refuse to take children whose parents do not pay fees, it is easy to imagine that payment of such fees might become as sporadic as, for example, payment of TV licenses.

But there are more fundamental problems too. Change in township schools has been largely student driven over the past two decades and the whole idea of PTSAs - that is, of including learners on the governing body, stems very much from ANC circles and in many parents' ears, has a partisan ring to it. It is by no means certain that the whole notion of according students such authority will be accepted. In effect, what has hitherto been seen as a partisan framework now needs to be accepted as non-partisan and "normal". Or again, the Act says that parents may be a majority on PTSAs but this question too will be a major battleground. Unions like TUATA and NATU are unhappy that students should have a voice in the appointment of teachers, but SADTU is more concerned that teacher appointments might be subject to a parental majority on PTSAs: the union wants to see a majority for teachers and students on PTSAs in the hope that this will give appointment power to a "progressive" bloc which it would hope to control. The ideological battle in the schools is, in a word, far from over.

Questions of authority remain

But most of all, of course, there is a great danger that the cart is being put before the horse. The crying need is for better education in the classroom - and the Act is more concerned about teaching "leadership skills" to all sorts of people outside the classroom than with that.

The idea of PTSA 'empowerment training' is at one or two levels of abstraction too high to deal with the utterly basic question of whether a particular student, teacher or principal is actually in his office or classroom, doing his or her job. Traditional school principals - men of the stamp of Albert Luthuli as headmaster of Adams College - knew that there was no substitute for MBWA -management by walking about - and that most schools lived and died by whether they had a good or bad principal. There is no remedy for the fundamental questions of authority, order and discipline within schools outlined at the beginning of this article, save through resort to the strong reinforcement of the authority of the school inspectorate and school principals.

It is all a little reminiscent of rent and rates boycotts: we can spend enormous amounts of time anguishing over such things in forums but we all know that it is only when the penalties for non-payment tare made clear and implemented that things will really improve. This is true everywhere else in the world and South Africa is hardly likely to be an exception.

It is the same in the classroom. Forums, political correctness and the teaching of "leadership skills" to parents, SRCs and teachers are all well and fine, but it is only when we see less politics and more inspectors In the schools that things will really improve, inspectors need to enforce accountability for truancy, absenteeism and delinquent behaviour before things will really improve, if heads have to roll, so be it.

Some would say this is a tough attitude, but it would be regarded as normal in other countries and after what township inhabitants have been through in the last 20 years, a demand that pupils behave and teachers teach seems mild indeed. In any case, can we be tough enough in providing for the education of our and the nation's children? What we are talking about, after all, to use a phrase famous in educational circles, is 'all our futures'.