‘Paying school fees not a free pass’

2013-05-09 18:25

The governing bodies of wealthy former Model C schools cannot continue to enjoy the discriminatory benefits of apartheid just because they pay the school fees.

This was the argument advanced today by a lawyer for the Gauteng department of education in its legal feud with the governing body of Rivonia Primary School.

The bitter battle over who has the final say in deciding whether a pupil should be admitted to a full school will now be decided by the Constitutional Court, where argument was heard in the matter today.

Matthew Chaskalson, appearing for the department of education, argued that the admissions policy of a school, which is adopted by its governing body, was a “guideline from which the department (of education) was entitled to depart”.

He argued that the department had “eminently” good reason to compel Rivonia Primary School to accept a learner in 2010, because it had to find place for some 3 000 additional learners in the district.

Chaskalson said Rivonia was the natural choice because the primary school had the lowest learner-teacher ratio of any school in its district, even though it claimed to be full.

But Gerrit Pretorius, who appeared for the governing body, said that the learner-teacher ratio was so low because parents at the school had recognised the need for quality education and had funded more classrooms and additional teachers.

“For a department to assert a right (to place learners) which has the risk of breaking down a system which works well ... and that helps people from a previously disadvantaged background, while itself failing dismally, simply cannot be correct,” said Pretorius.

This argument had earlier been addressed by Chaskalson, who said the department, in fulfilling its constitutional obligation to place all learners, was forced to turn to schools which have greater capacity because parents had contributed to the building of additional classrooms.

“A school doesn’t cease to be a public resource just because parents of the school have contributed to building some additional classrooms and financing some additional teachers.

“A school has to be used in the interests of the broader community in which the school is located,” he argued.

He said the fact that a school was located in a historically white area was the reason that it could attract wealthier parents and had inherited good infrastructure.

“If we say you pay the school fees so you don’t have to share, really what we are saying is that you are entitled to control that discriminatory benefit you inherited from apartheid,” said Chaskalson.

His arguments were echoed by Raylene Keightley, who appeared on behalf of the SA Onderwysersunie, a friend of the court.

Keightly said the “funding of (a self-funding) school by parents does not only serve the interests of learners at that school, it also serves the broader interest and it serves the interest of poorer schools”.

She said this freed up resources to be plowed back into poorer schools.

Steven Budlender, who appeared on behalf of friends of the court Equal Education and the Centre for Child Law, said that the admissions policy of the SGB should always serve as a starting point, but that the department of education should be able to override these within certain constraints.

These included factors such as the number of pupils that had to be placed at a school, the alternatives, the cost implication for the school concerned and extra facilities and resources which would have to be acquired by the school.

Budlender also said that government would have to bear the costs if it was going to place pupils at a school that could not afford additional learners.

Pretorius was extensively quizzed by justices of the Constitutional Court on his argument that the power to admit a pupil was exercised by the principal of a school on behalf of both the governing body and the department of education and within the narrow constraints of the governing body’s admissions policy.

Eventually he conceded that the final decision lay with the department, although he said this was a statutory power designed to deal with a temporary situation.

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