Big policy stick not the answer to speed up transformation of schools

Bela is driving parents crazy. One source claims that 100 000 parents have signed a petition against the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill recently gazetted by the government.

The Bill returns to three key policy controversies that the national Department of Education has stoked over the years – language policy, learner admissions and teacher appointments.

From the parents’ point of view, these changes erode their democratic rights through the governing body of school to make or recommend decisions on these key policies.

From the department’s point of view, these changes are necessary for the transformation of schools.

Both parties, in my view, are to blame for this standoff.

I am now convinced that many white-dominant schools, particularly Afrikaans institutions, use their language policies as one of the instruments for limiting black enrolments. Do not be fooled by the argument about language rights and the constitution; by limiting instruction to Afrikaans, most black African students (and teachers) are effectively excluded. That works well for racially minded if not racist parent bodies.

The department therefore has a point in requiring more than one language of instruction as a means of opening up these schools to all our children. It is no coincidence that the resistance to this proposed policy shift comes from right-wing organisations who have suddenly acquired a taste for democracy.

In the same way, controlling learner admissions through a school policy on “catchment areas’, as recently discussed in this column, only white and recently arrived black middle- class parents from the area surrounding a school qualify for access.

In this way, the most prominent white English schools in our country remain white and privileged through this handy instrument of exclusion.

When it comes to teacher appointments, the record shows that since 1994 school governing bodies (SGBs) tend to hire teachers of the school’s dominant race and language group.

Even when a competitive black teacher is on the shortlist, the tendency is to appoint the white teacher. That is what white parents want and there is no shortage of anecdotes that this is also what many middle-class black parents want – white teachers.

These three proposed policy changes are an attempt to change once and for all the racial balkanisation of South Africa’s public schools. But will it work?

I do not for one moment trust the government to do a better job of transforming our white schools.

To begin with, this government does not care about standards of teaching. They are much less concerned with finding the best available black teachers. No, their ideological attachment is to any black teacher with the minimum of qualifications and experience.

I do not trust the government to uphold academic standards in our schools, as the abysmal state of our majority schools demonstrates.

Nor am I convinced that this government has the will or capacity to stem the corruption in teacher appointments when unions and politicians begin to infiltrate SGB decisions.

And it is the case that where public schools (as opposed to universities) open their doors to English language instruction, then Afrikaans instruction, and children, leave the school because of the decisive shift in the racial demographics of the institution.

So what is to be done? To begin with, the government should not change the policy framework for school governance. What it should rather do is to work with white-dominant schools through a combination of persuasion, support, incentives and, if necessary, penalty to open their schools to more black students, and especially more black teachers. A big policy stick is not necessary.

So, for example, if English language instruction is gradually introduced, the state should provide the resources to appoint competent teachers to do the job.

Schools should be encouraged to take a percentage of students outside of the catchment areas to provide access to quality education for poor and promising students stuck in the townships.

And the department could help establishment teachers with how to teach for equity, diversion and inclusion as the school profile changes.

My colleagues and I find that more than ever before, white-dominant schools, both public and private, are reaching out for help. Recent high school protests have shaken school leaders and teachers; they know something has to change. This is the time for the government to press home the need to adjust language, admission and teacher appointment policies.

What we cannot afford in South Africa is a mass-based public school system that is black, poor and dysfunctional, and a small, elite school system that is white, privileged and increasingly privatised. The Bill, if approved, makes this outcome inevitable.

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