Court curbs school powers - Government may have final

2013-10-04 00:00

A LANDMARK Constitutional Court ruling yesterday will curb the power of state schools to decide who they let in the front gate.

The Constitutional Court ruled yesterday that the government has the right to over-rule public schools’ admission policies, This concluded a long battle by a Johannesburg mother to enrol her daughter at Rivonia Primary School.

At the heart of the case was the issue of who has the right to decide a state school’s admissions policy — the school’s governing body, or Education Department officials.

The implications of the judgment will echo across South Africa into Durban and Pietermaritzburg, home to some of the country’s leading state schools, which face growing pressure to increase the number of pupils they enrol.

Key elements of the ruling included:

• Allowing the provincial education head the authority to admit a child to a school;

• Schools retaining the right — although it has been curtailed — to determine admissions criteria and their capacity;

• Emphatically allowing the Education Department to have absolute power over the application of the admission policies;

• Directing that the Education Department had to consider a school’s policies in making decisions, but;

• Insisting that a school’s capacity and admission criteria cannot be so rigid as to limit the discretion of an Education Department head to enrol a pupil.

Dr Jaco Deacon, deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), said the ruling was likely to impact on classes.

“There could be an influx of pupils to schools, as we see it is already happening.

“As a parent, you want the best for your child, if you have to pass three or four poor performing schools to get to the best schools, that is what you will do.

“There are 45 000 teachers employed by SGBs and those are funded directly by the fees paid by parents. If the department could suddenly place more pupils, parents would question why they need to subsidise the state,” he said.

Chris Bruorton, chairperson of the governing body of Westville Boys’ High School, said they were pleased the judgment reaffirms that it is the responsibility and duty of SGBs to establish admissions policies.

“We have also noted that while the judgment provides that the department has the power to override a school’s admissions policy, it has to act in a procedurally fair and proper manner. Westville Boys’ High School has an admissions policy in place that has always had the support of the KZN Education Department.”

Bruorton said the SGB will not have to change its admissions policy as a result of the judgment.

UKZN Professor of Education Volker Wedekind said the ruling was welcome.

“Public schools should not be allowed to become private spaces for a particular community or group, but by the same token provinces should exercise their power responsibly.”

Reginald Chiliza, KZN chairperson of the National Association of School Governing Bodies (SGBs), said the judgment was in line with the South African Schools Act.

“This gives the Education head of department the powers to intervene in matters, like placing a pupil at a particular school,” he said.

“The challenge that we have is that some of the school governing bodies, particularly at former Model C schools, tend to play opposition party politics instead of embracing the laws that empower SGBs,” he said.

Wedekind did not believe education quality would suffer if classes became larger. He said there was a misperception that small class sizes meant quality, with little evidence to support the idea.

Fedsas CEO Paul Colditz said: “better communication and co-operation between education departments and SGBs is at the heart of the judgment”.

Education expert Graeme Bloch said he hoped the judgment did not mean former Model C schools were to be targeted.

“What is needed is for all the parties to discuss, rather than target each other. We just need to move with it. The judgment is subtle and I think it’s right.”

Mbuyiseni Mathonsi, KZN secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, said they would respond after considering the ruling fully.

Naptosa president Basil Manuel said even though the provinces were given power to intervene, they still have to work with schools and SGBs. He predicted that little would change.

“The provinces must not think that they can pack schools with children. We’re not unhappy with the ruling, but we are saying it must be implemented with caution.

“The department doesn’t have a right to pack schools with 60 or 70 children in a classroom,” he warned.

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