It’s school admission season and, like many other parents, I set out and collected forms for various private and public schools to apply for my daughter’s entrance.
The conclusion I came to after perusing the application forms was that our school governing bodies are stuck in a time-warp and need to be brought into the 21st century. Judging by the application forms and admission requirements, the school system is still carrying prejudices it carried more than 20 years ago when I was a learner in the 1990s.
I have always found the blatant refusal to acknowledge the existence of family units outside the married paradigm in South African schools very ancient.
When I was at school, I was constantly frustrated at the inability of the school to recognise that there were other family structures beyond married parents.
This attitude showed up in seemingly little things. My mother and father were never married and I lived with my mother and used my mother’s surname, even though, thankfully, my father participated in every aspect of my life. My biggest frustration was that, at least every other year, I had to go to the administration and ask them to correct the Mrs prefix in the letters they sent to my mother. This also made me as a child feel as if there was something wrong with my family structure and that the only legitimate family was one where a mother was a Mrs.
I was shocked to find that 20 years later, the schooling system still discriminates against children who do not come from a married family structure. Although I am now a married mother, it irked me that prejudice against single parents still exists. In the forms I collected, there were various prejudices which I can only hope were unintended, and the consequences of not thinking outside the box.
The first problem I encountered was the idea that if you are not married and living with the father of your child, then you are on your own. One school in particular even went so far as to let you know that they will not abide by an order by a court of law. The form says, “In the case of divorce, irrespective of the divorce agreement, both parents will be held responsible for fees and must, therefore both sign the application form”. This means that if you and your husband are separated or divorced and school fees are delegated as his responsibility, the school does not want to even enter into any explanations or negotiations about it. Considering the high number of divorces, with 50 517 recorded in the 2012/13 year by the Department of Justice, I find such admission form clauses uninformed and not in touch with the reality of many South Africans.
Recent statistics also show that 53% of working mothers in South Africa are single and receive no financial assistance from their children’s fathers. This means for a large number of women, the request for a father’s identity document and signature was unrealistic as they do not participate in their children’s lives financially. Children of estranged married parents will also be at a loss in light of this requirement.
I posed my concern about this clause to friends on Facebook and some suggested that they have had to find creative means to bypass this law. One friend said they signed on behalf of their aunt in the section for the father’s child as the father was absent. Another friend detailed her frustrations in waiting for more than two months for her estranged husband to send a copy of his ID and sign the forms, which he still has not done, leaving her at a loss for the next course of action.
The whole process had me wondering – if heterosexual parents of different family structures are treated with such disregard, how much more frustrating is the admission process for the gay/lesbian single/ divorced parents and heterosexual women who went to a sperm bank to conceive their child.
Another frustration I have always had is the rules different schools have about the age at which children may enter.
In my school years, I was an anomaly in this. I started school at four and turned five in the middle of my Grade 1 year. I remember when I changed schools the issue of my age was a big deal at the school as I was two years younger than most of the children in my class. This was after being made to repeat a grade I had already done at another school. This was bearable until, when I was due to attend high school, teachers again called my parents and tried to argue that because of my age, I should be held back again and do another year of primary school. My mother’s response was to ask them if I had passed the grade and if I was coping well with the current work and current age group. Their answer to both was yes, but they argued that based on my age, they were worried that I would struggle to fit in to high school.
My mother refused, and as a result I went to high school and went on to pass every grade with no problems until I reached matric. I did so well academically that by the time I turned 21, I was in the middle of my honours year at University.
It was again with shock that I received an e-mail from a private school informing me that they had received my daughter’s application form, but they would only place the form with applications for the next year as they have strict rules about age entry into the school. I called the school and asked the admissions lady to explain to me how the law of South Africa stipulates that “Children can be accepted in Grade R in the year they turn five and in Grade One in the year they turn six” but their school does not seem to follow this rule. Her reply at every turn was that they are a private school and have their own rules about the age of entry. I have requested a meeting with the principal and hope to finally sort out the issue of age of entry when we meet.
The issues raised above concern me because I see a school system that has not changed in more than 20 years.
Ours is a country that prides itself on celebrating diversity and yet it seems our institutions of education have not caught up with this.
How do we expect to raise and educate a generation that celebrates diversity in all its forms when the very institutions that are tasked with this job, reject any divergence from the “norm”?
l Ngoasheng is a Cape Town-based writer, social commentator and mother of one.