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Public schools in KwaZulu-Natal will be forced to admit pupils on a first-come first-served basis from next year, ending nearly two decades of a practice that allowed schools to prioritise children from their feeder areas.
The provincial Education Department said this week that the “feeder” system was a barrier to integration, and that schools in historically white areas were using it to keep black children out.
The South African Schools Act of 1996 states that a governing body determines the admissions policy of its school – subject to any applicable provincial law.
Just before the winter school holiday, KZN Education Department head Nkosinathi Sishi sent a circular to education officials, principals and governing body chairmen saying that next year’s school admissions policy would not be determined by feeder zones.
Governing body associations think the decision is unlawful and see it as an attempt by the government to wrest power from them.
Department spokesman Muzi Mahlambi said the intention was to “speed up transformation” and “promote access”.
“There have been observations that there are schools which continue to preclude (pupils) from previously disadvantaged areas on the basis that they don’t stay in the feeder area,” Mahlambi said.
Parents went to extremes to get their child into a school, even asking friends to use their addresses on admissions forms, Mahlambi said.
Public schools did not have “zoning powers”, he stressed.
The loophole for the MEC to get around the Schools Act is that his powers supersede that of a governing body. “They must take those (pupils) who come first,” stressed Mahlambi.
The Governing Body Foundation, a national association representing 700 schools, has already sought legal opinion on the directive.
Tim Gordon, the foundation’s CEO, said his understanding was that Sishi was prohibiting governing bodies from determining feeder zones as part of their admissions policy criteria.
“It’s not legally acceptable,” Gordon said.
The foundation intends meeting Sishi.
“If it allowed schools to be reflective of the demography of the country, if that is (Sishi’s) intention, we would be absolutely supportive. Unfortunately, people are saying that there are conditions coupled to that,” Gordon said, referring to the first-come first-served principle.
Gordon has previously cried foul over what he called government’s “concerted drive to curtail the rights and influence of school governing bodies”.
He cited a 2011 Johannesburg High Court judgment which found that a school governing body did not have the unqualified power to determine a public school’s admission policy. Rivonia Primary School took the Gauteng Education Department to court claiming that department officials had forcefully admitted a Grade 1 pupil, despite the school having reached capacity.
Yesterday, attorney Zeenat Sujee, from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies, said this case had set a precedent – that the powers of an education MEC trumped those of a governing body.
Paul Colditz, CEO of the 1 400-strong Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, said that for many schools feeder zones prevented overcrowding. It was “absolute rubbish” to suggest that former Model C schools were “completely white”, he said. “They are all fully integrated.”
However, Reginald Chiliza, chairman of the KZN School Governing Body Association, felt strongly that the feeder-zone policy was “gatekeeping” at former Model C schools.
“These schools are still (practising) racism in disguise,” he said. He was 100 percent behind the department’s decision. Sayed Rajak, chairman of the KZN Parents’ Association, echoed Gordon in expressing concern that children living next door to schools could be denied a spot.
Doing away with feeder zones was not in the best interest of education, despite the department’s intention. He predicted “high flying” schools would be overwhelmed by demand, and many others left empty by |“migrant pupils”.
Jonathan Snyman, from the SA Institute of Race Relations, said he believed governing bodies were better suited to determine their own feeder zones. “However, the onus is then on the governing bodies to ensure that their admission policies seek to be transparent and free from bias towards race and class,” Snyman said.
The institute’s 2009 data showed that black pupils contributed 30 percent of total passes at former Model C schools, compared to 53 percent for white pupils. “So, based on that, former Model C schools do not represent the demographics of South Africa,” he said.