Support parent power

2012-02-28 00:00

THIS week, the third largest public elections kick off at every school across the country. Over five million parents will have the opportunity, between March 1 and March 23, to vote for the school governing body (SGB) at their child’s school.

What’s the big deal? Why are the SGB elections important? Our country’s future depends on our ability to improve the quality of our children’s education. This requires an effective partnership between the Education Department, principals and teachers, and (crucially) parents and pupils. Each person must understand his or her respective role, and fulfil it. Otherwise quality education for all will remain a pipe dream, no matter how much money we pump into education.

School governing bodies are the nexus of effective partnerships in our schools. The SGB empowers parents to become powerful players in their children’s education. When a school community elects committed, skilled parents to fulfil this role it makes an enormous difference to a school’s ethos and quality. Self-seeking parents who abuse the power of governing bodies for their own ends can inflict severe damage on a school.

As with elections everywhere, voters get the governance they deserve. But in the case of SGBs, there is an additional risk. Parents who fail to understand the issues at stake in these elections undermine their children’s education. Parents too apathetic to participate cannot complain later.

Prior to 1994, teachers, pupils and parents were largely excluded from school governance. This changed with the South African Schools Act of 1996, which requires every public school to have a SGB democratically elected by the school community and mandated to set key policies and rules, as long as these are compatible with the Constitution and the law.

Some of the powers and functions entrusted to SGBs include:

• deciding the admission policy of the school;

• deciding the language policy of a school;

• establishing a policy on religion at the school;

• adopting a school code of conduct and constitution;

• administering and controlling the school’s property and budget; and

• determining the school’s annual fees in consultation with parents.

Crucially, SGBs also interview and nominate principals and teachers for appointment by the relevant provincial Education Department.

Essentially, it is the skills and dedication of principals and teachers that make or break a school. The fact that SGBs short-list applications and make recommendations to their respective Education Department means that they play a direct role in ensuring that capable teachers are appointed at their schools.

Furthermore, SGBs are empowered to fund additional posts that are appointed directly by the SGB. There are almost 50 000 SGB teaching posts in South Africa.

It should be of profound concern to every South African that an estimated 80% of SGBs across the country are considered to be dysfunctional. This is the assessment of the two major SGB associations — the National Association of School Governing Bodies (NASGB) and the Federation of Governing Bodies of South Africans Schools (Fedsas). This figure is far higher than that provided by Deputy Minister of Basic Education Enver Surty, who estimated that 30% of SGBs are not functioning in the way they should be.

Together the NASGB and Fedsas represent nearly 20 000 of the country’s 26 000 state schools. The associations believe that the main reasons for the high number of dysfunctional SGBs are that members lack the insight, skills and will to carry out their responsibilities.They argue that poor training is partly to blame for the incapacity of many SGB members.

It is critical that these elections result in competent and committed people being elected to SGBs, with the capacity to select quality teachers and to manage their school’s finances effectively. Because these skills are sometimes lacking in the parent body, the law makes provision for the co-option of people from outside to undertake specific tasks. Although so many governing bodies are performing below par, we must avoid the temptation to abandon the principle of parent empowerment in education, but rather undertake the task of building a sense of ownership among parents.

All provincial Education Departments must ensure that first, the upcoming SGB elections are free, fair and run smoothly. Second, that once elected, SGB members are properly trained so they can carry out the enormous responsibilities required of them.

The Western Cape Education Department has established a provincial electoral team consisting of government officials, representatives from SGB associations and other relevant stakeholders. The task team has been working with electoral teams in all our education districts to ensure that schools are ready.

An electoral officer, usually a principal from a neighbouring school, has been assigned to every school and is tasked with managing the voting process. Once the election process has been completed and a new SGB has been appointed for a three-year term, the Western Cape Education Department will provide extensive training to ensure that every SGB member has the knowledge and skills needed to govern his or her school effectively.

However, the entire process becomes meaningless if voting parents ignore the “fit for purpose” criterion in electing governing bodies. When it comes to SGBs, it is the children who suffer the effects of a lazy, corrupt or self-serving governing body.

 

• Helen Zille is leader of the DA. This article first appeared in her weekly newsletter.

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