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Hot on the heels of the Limpopo textbook scandal, the Eastern Cape “mud schools” saga and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s notorious “I don’t know what’s going on in classrooms” comment made recently on television, the actions of education authorities in KZN have raised concerns that they are basing educational decisions on nothing more than unfounded, pie-in-the-sky ideas and political expediency.
Let us look at two recent pronouncements: the ruling by Nkosinathi Sishi, KZN’s head of education, that the province will not allow schools to set feeder zones; and his requirement that admission to public schools next year will be on a first come, first served basis.
In the past, KZN schools have interpreted the setting of a feeder zone to mean that children who live closest to one particular school have a right to be enrolled there. In 2008 the education MEC instructed a school to accept children only from such a feeder zone, to give structure to its admissions process.
What is wrong with Sishi’s instructions?
First, we are advised that they are illegal.
Second, they are impractical, and illustrate the extent to which the department is out of touch with what happens in its own schools.
And third, they appear to have no basis in educational thought or research. Can it be otherwise when two provinces simultaneously tell schools, “You may not use feeder zones in adjudicating admission applications” (KZN) and “You must use feeder zones in adjudicating admission applications” (Gauteng)?
Most obviously, application of Sishi’s directive could mean that a pupil living next door to a school loses out on a place in the school in favour of someone who lives 20, 30, even 100km away.
Similarly, the sibling of someone already in the school may be displaced by someone from miles away. One race group, by “getting its act together”, camping out outside the school the night before the applications process begins, or organising early applications from a group of its members, could undo the demographic mix already achieved in the school, and return the school to near racial exclusivity.
After-hours sport, parent meetings, cultural and service actions become difficult to arrange and are poorly attended. And community-based schools lose their community support and cohesion, which is bad educationally, as will be pointed out later.
Beyond education, the effect will certainly be felt in the transport system, on the roads and in the costs of schooling, as more people travel greater distances to school.
Early rising and late coming must surely increase as more pupils from other areas are enrolled.
There could be disruptions to family life, pupil cohesion and camaraderie, with lifelong friends finding themselves pushed into different schools at the change from pre-primary to primary school and primary to high school.
“Moving with my mates” has become one of the most important determinants for young people around which high school they will attend.
It is a huge part of the security blanket of the early pubescent to remain with their peers, and it could be seriously compromised by the proposals contained in the circular.
The Education Department’s policy position obviously also raises certain questions in law. Legal advice we have received suggests that if there is one category of pupils that has an “enforceable right” to enrolment at a school, it is that group living in close proximity to it. To deny such pupils admission to the school “might be so unreasonable as to be unlawful”, according to the lawyers.
These lawyers also express serious doubts about the legality of the “first come, first served” principle as a criterion for determining admissions. It is a “totally arbitrary approach”, according to the advice received.
Applicants who apply within the established period during which applications are open should be “entitled to equal treatment”, and “there is no sound, rational educational principle underpinning the ‘first come, first served’ principle as a selection criterion”.
What about educational criteria? After all, these regulations are being enacted by education authorities, not an arbitrary group from some other sector.
Credible educational research holds that the concept of the neighbourhood school, serving, but also served by, a close-knit, positive, supportive community living near the school, holds strong educational advantages for all concerned. If we want to improve our education, the community school is something we should be supporting and strengthening, not breaking down or outlawing.
For example, a leading piece of recent educational research established a clear link between school-family-community partnerships and improved pupil attendance.
These are two important characteristics sorely lacking in many SA schools.
In other community schools, research has identified “improved pupil learning, stronger families and healthier communities”. Again, why destroy or outlaw them?
Particularly worrying is that the circular that initiated the furore demonstrates how little the department’s managers seem to know about its schools and their workings.
Was it coincidental that such a critical circular was sent out in the middle of the long mid-year holidays, when there was nobody at schools?
Furthermore, nowhere in the circular does Sishi say anything about first come, first served – yet he has confirmed in interviews that this is what he requires of schools.
The circular demands that schools “complete their admissions by October 31” – a process completed already by March 31 in many, and by June 30 in most, of the schools likely to be affected by the policy.
Will we now see an instruction undoing all those offers and acceptances? I certainly hope not.
As the director: legal services in the national head office of the Education Department pointed out during the debacle regarding top-up payments by governing bodies to state employees, “just like any legislation, these regulations do not apply retrospectively”.
Sishi says he is chasing the holy grail of school integration.
This is an entirely praiseworthy ideal, but it does not need new rules to achieve it.
It is already wholeheartedly supported by a significant majority of our suburban schools, and it is patently mischievous to say the suburban schools are not transformed or transforming.
For example, only about 40 percent of the pupil population in our former white member schools that responded to a survey carried out last term is still white.
In many such schools the black intake can be as high as 80 percent or 90 percent.
With few exceptions, our top schools are the only schools in the entire system that are multiracial.
And what is to happen to the children living close to schools who are displaced by those from further afield?
If the authorities would put as much effort into improving the quality of their schools as they do into a questionable manipulation of intakes, many of its biggest headaches would disappear.
This includes some township and rural schools standing almost empty because of the migration of pupils to better schools: and the number of excess staff created by the emptying schools.
As parents fight to get their children into schools where real teaching and learning takes place, it is not about demographics and race – it is all about quality education.
If the state provided quality education at all schools, there would be no reason for pupils to flee some of them; and if the authorities encouraged communities to support their local schools, they would not have this problem.
Surely Sishi cannot seriously believe that his new directive will occasion a rush of children from across the demographic spectrum to the hitherto uniracial schools in the townships?
There is good reason to regard the latest efforts of the department as ill-considered, uneducational, shallow, politically motivated and based on unsubstantiated concepts and a startling lack of knowledge of the system.
We really hope that Sishi, normally educationally both sensible and sensitive, will talk to us, recognise reality and reconsider his directive.
* Tim Gordon is chief executive officer of the Governing Body Foundation.