System is failing schools

2014-05-13 00:00

IN the past two years, the governing bodies of at least three public schools in KwaZulu-Natal have had to bring applications in the high court in order to force the head of the KZN Education Department to consider and act on their recommendations to expel problem pupils.

In each instance, the pupils concerned were eventually expelled, but not before the department incurred legal costs at the expense of the taxpayer.

In May 2013, Vryheid High School obtained a high court order allowing it to expel a Grade 12 pupil who had stabbed and seriously injured a classmate during a sports event at the school. By the time the matter came before the high court, the pupil had already left school and moved to an FET college.

Simultaneously, Northern Park Primary School in Pietermaritzburg also successfully applied to the court to enforce its recommendation to the department to expel a 12-year-old who was found guilty of, among other things, “displaying a form of violent anger towards an educator and for actions and/or passing of statements that provoke racism” in the school.

Brett Kearns, chairperson of the governing body of Northern Park Primary, and Johannes Coetzer, chairperson of Vryheid High School’s governing body, said in affidavits at the time that the Education Department head, Dr Nkosinathi Sishi, decided not to expel the pupils concerned, but then failed to impose suitable alternative sanctions after consultations with the schools or refer the matters back to the schools to impose an alternative sanction as required by the SA Schools Act.

Sishi allegedly didn’t give reasons and didn’t respond to letters sent by the schools.

His conduct was said to create uncertainty, not only as far as governance of the schools were concerned but also among the staff and fellow pupils at the schools.

Kearns suggested his attitude created a situation where a pupil may consider himself to be “untouchable”.

Kearns said it appeared as if Sishi has taken a decision not to endorse expulsions in public schools at all, regardless of the merits of the recommendation.

He suggested that such an attitude would “cause chaos” in the education system, would “breed a culture of delinquent learners, place an unbearable amount of stress and tension on educators and will jeopardise the safety of other learners”.

Almost a carbon copy of these two matters came before another high court judge in Pietermaritzburg in March this year when Vryheid Agricultural School complained it had found two Grade 11 pupils guilty of, among other things, threatening and intimidating the school’s 67-year-old English teacher.

They smashed the windscreen of her car with a brick on which was written the word: “Leave”.

Both pupils had poor academic records and behavioural issues.

The court case was finalised in court on April 24 when the Department of Education filed a letter, which was attached to the court papers, giving the go-ahead for the pupils to be expelled with immediate effect. The department was ordered to pay the costs of the case.

The question is: should it be necessary for the governing bodies of public schools to have to go to court to succeed in having ill-disciplined pupils who have committed serious offences, expelled?

I am certain parents of other children at the affected schools would not wish their own children’s education to be tainted or hindered by unruly elements. The boundaries should be clearly drawn, and those who overstep the mark must be dealt with swiftly and conclusively.

Teachers in schools in this country are already facing a mammoth task to maintain discipline, an essential ingredient if our schools are to succeed in turning out pupils ready to take on the challenges of society and tertiary education.

Our Education Department is failing to send a strong message that it will not tolerate those who disrupt the school environment and intimidate our teachers.

Not to do so infringes on the constitutional rights of pupils who are keen to learn and contribute to society.

It is also a betrayal of the teachers in whom we have entrusted the vitally important task of equipping them to do so.

The pupils of today are the businessmen and women of our future. Discipline is essential if they are to become productive members of society.

• Ingrid Oellermann is the court

reporter at The Witness.

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