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For decades it was a high school that was the envy of pupils and parents enrolled elsewhere. Boasting a minimum of 80 to 90 percent pass rates in matric, and with a loyal and dedicated parent and teacher body, the high school in a Durban township saw as its alumni parliamentarians, business leaders and the like.
Fast forward to 2005, and the pass rate at the same school had dropped to below 30 percent.
By 2008, pupil enrolments dropped to almost half its full capacity. Pupil absenteeism and late-coming were rife. In addition, several teachers failed to report for duty as internal squabbles over the principal’s chair took its toll.
The decline of this school, together with three other former African high schools in Durban townships, was the subject of research by three University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) academics, Siphiwe Mthiyane, Thamsanqa Bhengu and Sibusiso Bayeni.
The as-yet unpublished study from UKZN’s School of Education reviewed records and documented interviews with principals, ward managers and teachers’ unions in an attempt to uncover why former exclusively black high schools, which had a reputation for academic and sporting excellence, declined post-1994.
Over the past 15 to 20 years, the matric pass rates of the researched schools have slipped to between 20 and 60 percent.
What went wrong?
Study participants, who have been given pseudonyms, cited lack of competent and committed leadership, the fear of exercising discipline over increasingly unionised staff, manipulation/politicisation of the recruitment of staff by school governing bodies and some teachers’ unions, and lack of commitment to hard work by teachers and pupils.
Other reasons listed were: the migration of pupils from rural and township areas to urban schools, lack of parental involvement and inadequate support from the KZN Education Department. Their views were supplemented by paperwork, which tracked academic results, and minutes of staff and senior management team meetings.
Mthiyane conceded that while the study sample was small and he was wary of generalising, it was safe to say that the problems participants pointed out and the research findings would hold true for other schools. He said a school’s demise was brought about by a “conglomeration” of factors rather than a single issue.
Mthiyane said one of the key issues raised was the absence of solid leadership.
“Almost all participants harped on about this aspect,” he said. An eyebrow raiser for him was how places of learning were not immune to the scramble for power (and bigger salaries).
“Mr Majavu’’, a ward manager with nearly 35 years’ service in education, said in his experience, divisions within a senior management team were most often caused by suspicions that people had bribed their way ‘up and in’.
“If the senior management team is united, it in turn would positively influence other staff members… (But) no matter how good a person is, if he or she was promoted in a questionable way, he/she will never earn the respect of the staff”.
According to “Mr Maseko”, a 54-year-old principal, the lack of a succession plan in the wake of a change in a school’s top leadership makes conditions ripe for the manipulation and politicisation of the recruitment process – the second factor which contributes to a school’s downfall.
The study states that without an earlier decision on who would take over the reins, there were instances in which schools had to be temporarily shut to allow infighting over a management post to be settled.
“In worst case scenarios, some people have even lost their lives. In addition, manipulation of the recruitment process by the school governing bodies and teachers’ unions has detrimental results,” he said.
Maseko said the political deployment in education was “disturbing”.
“The proper way of recruiting the best candidate is subverted where a candidate is not recruited because of his qualification, knowledge and skills, but because of political or union affiliation.
‘‘The whole process of recruitment is defeated and that school begins a spiral of decline.”
The role of certain teacher unions was another factor on which all the participants concurred: they lamented the negative effect on schools, saying that incompetent teachers hid behind unions.
“The fear of being victimised by a teacher union compels many principals to withdraw… School principals don’t want to speak their minds, they don’t want to be firm, and they don’t stand their ground… They are paralysed by fear. I know firmness alone will not produce good results but fairness will,” he said.
Other challenges associated with teacher unions are “regular teacher absenteeism” because of union duties. Maseko expressed concern that the disruptive power of teacher unions extended to senior department meetings, citing an incident in which a high-level delegation from the Education Department was forced to abandon a meeting because of picketing at the venue.
“If they are as powerful as that where they are able to disturb very senior meetings, how much more at a school level?” The lack of commitment demonstrated by some who opted for teaching as a “fall-back career choice”, regular teacher absenteeism and refraining from disciplining pupils whose rights rather than responsibilities were emphasised – especially by the education department, were mentioned as further contributing to the decline.
“The policies that have been introduced by our democratic government are too liberal, emphasising the rights of pupils. These policies are appropriate for first world countries, to be honest with you. It is bordering on chaos.
‘‘This somehow intimidates those responsible for discipline in the schools. Not that we don’t want rights, but when the emphasis is mainly on rights rather than responsibilities, we are courting disaster,” Majavu said.
“Mr Thabethe”, a principal of one of the schools since 2006, argued that the procedure that needed to be followed to be able to institute disciplinary action against a pupil was unnecessarily lengthy.
“If you need to discipline a child, you have to follow lengthy procedures via the district office and sometimes the head office.
‘‘It may take three to five months before you receive a response from the department”.
In this regard, “Mr Shabalala”, a 59-year-old principal, said a group of matric boys who had raped a peer in the school toilets were to be suspended and/or expelled.
However, Shabalala said it took almost a year before the school received correspondence from the department on how the boys were to be dealt with. By then the alleged perpetrators had matriculated and left the school
Although post-1994 has opened doors for an integrated pupil population, the research participants were unanimous that the right to choice it had afforded black parents had caused the decline of some schools.
While some rural and township schools produce some of this province’s top matric achievers despite the odds, there is still the belief that former Model C schools stand head and shoulders above the rest, and this attracts pupils from the rural and township areas, further exacerbating the spiral of decline.
“Now that the doors are open, parents are exercising their right to choose. They go for the best.
‘‘That is why every year enrolments in the African township schools are declining. Pupils are going to the best schools in the suburbs,” Majavu said.
“Only when they fail to get admitted there do they come back to schools in the townships.’’
Aside from parental choice, a lack of parental involvement (particularly among black parents) was another factor that all participants lamented.
Where parents were present, their involvement was said to be poor, but child-headed households also obviously negatively affected school work, and eventually led to school decline.
Mthiyane did not believe that the sole reason for non-participation was because black parents were illiterate or uneducated.
The argument that black parents worked long and late hours did not hold water for him either because the same parents honoured meetings that were called by ex-Model C schools in the evenings, even if it was during the week.
Mthiyane and his co-authors assert that there are no easy answers or short-term solutions to restore these schools to their former glory. They believe that to arrest the phenomenon requires a multi-pronged approach, with the buy-in of all stakeholders, committed for the long haul.
What is needed is: continuous development programmes for both school leaders and teachers, running of schools as businesses, democratic and distributed leadership, teamwork, empowerment of principals to work with teachers’ unions, balance between pupils’ rights and responsibilities, the proper implementation of education department policies, effective support from Education Department officials, improved parental involvement and the restoration of the culture of teaching and learning were cited as possible solutions to decline in these schools.