Inside Labour: Schools and democracy - a main message for 2018

WHATEVER democratic power ordinary people have should always be defended - and fiercely. It is for this reason that community activists, including trade unionists with experience of organisation, should be gearing up this year to confront a serious challenge on the educational front.

It comes in the form of amendments to the 1996 Schools Act, in particular a provision that proposes curtailing the power of school governing bodies (SGBs). This will be dressed up as another necessary and progressive intervention, fixing up something that is badly broken.

But, at best, it amounts to another piecemeal attempt to deal with the crisis of South African schooling, and it erodes an important democratic principle: that the administration of education should be as community-based as possible while ensuring the best core values of teaching and learning.

This follows another bout of denialism evidenced in the official enthusiasm for the matriculation myth. The annual circus of massage and manipulation of pass rates at Grade 12 is apparently intended to persuade the public at large that the government - the state - knows best and is steadily improving the dismal state of South African schooling.  

Chronically flawed system

Any close examination of the facts reveals this to be nonsense. Yet even teacher and other unions have fallen into line to welcome enthusiastically claimed improvements at the end point of a chronically flawed system. It is a system that, as educator and academic Jonathan Jansen notes, is “the education equivalent of force-feeding an under-nourished patient on junk food”.

However, in the case of SGBs, the government is correct in claiming that the “partnership structure” of governing bodies has failed; that most SGBs lack both the skills and capacity to function properly.

Of the 24 000-plus schools throughout the country, only a small minority have recognisable SGBs that are not hopelessly dysfunctional. However, the responsibility for this situation rests mainly with the government.

Just as the national education department has, in the past, embarked on fine educational schemes - including outcomes based education - without first laying the essential groundwork to ensure proper implementation, so too was the SGB scheme introduced in a way that guaranteed failure.

The concept of SGBs is based on democratic principles; on the idea that the administration of schools should be a partnership between education departments, teachers, parents and the communities in which the schools are situated.

A logical extension of this is the community schools project undertaken in the Eastern Cape by the Nelson Mandela University. This aims to turn schools into “community hubs” and ties in with the call this week by the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union for communities “to play a more critical role in the upbringing of children”. 

A driving force behind the community school project was Dr Allistair Witten, now an adjunct professor at the University of Cape Town. Schools, he points out, are central to lives within every community: “What we need is a broader, bolder and more integrated approach to school improvement.” 

He adds: “But we have never unleashed the full potential of SGBs- and we have certainly not invested in building capacity.” In fact the building of capacity has been left to non-governmental groups, seven of which are recognised by the education department and to which only a tiny minority of schools are affiliated.

There is also evidence of corruption, sometimes involving union members, principals, teachers and putative SGBs. It is another broken aspect of a failing system.

But moving overall control back into the hands of the state is no answer; it is a move toward the sort of centralised control exerted under the apartheid regime and other authoritarian governments. As American academic Larry Diamond has noted, an increasing number of countries once regarded as democratic, no longer qualify as such.

Using the institutions of democracy to kill it subtly

Diamond also points out that the death of democracy no longer needs a coup d'état, or military putsch; the assassins of democracy use the institutions of the system to subtly kill it. A classic example of recent times is what happened in Turkey.

It is the very subtlety and apparent legality of such moves that encourages complacency in most citizens. And, as the school year gets under way this week, it is not surprising that there was not any major concern expressed about the government’s intended move against SGBs.

Most working people have not had the time or inclination to to deal with yet another piece of proposed legislation; they are more concerned with being sorely out of pocket while also perhaps worrying about where the school fees will be coming from. Even in non-fee paying schools, education can be expensive.

However, this is an issue that must be debated. Real progress in the schooling system requires a comprehensive overhaul and cannot happen without the democratic involvement of community members, including members of trade unions other than those organising teachers. This is the essence of the SGB project. 

So far, it has failed, largely for want of resources and adequate support. But properly structured and trained SGBs could - and should - deal with the multitude of difficulties confronting the system, not least of which is the inherited residential geography of apartheid.

As secretary of the Governors Alliance Kathy Callaghan notes, parents from one community who bus their children often great distances to perceived “better schools” in another area, also often do not have the resources or time to become involved in such schools.

This is a problem in urban areas and, like admissions and language policies, is something that needs to be dealt with. But, as Witten points out, public schools, “especially those serving township and rural communities”, have the potential to become thriving community schools.

The multitude of problems facing schools can and should be resolved with the state playing a supportive and facilitating role in a democratic process that accords with the Bill of Rights. Democracy should be expanded, not killed. That should be the main back to school message for 2018.

Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

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