File photo: Phill Magakoe

A decision in favour of Rivonia Primary School’s governing body in the Supreme Court of Appeal on Friday has been described as an enormous victory for public schools.

The Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools (Fedsas) said it was a victory against the increasing bureaucratisation of education.

The SCA ruled that the governing body of a public school – not the provincial education authorities – had the authority to determine the number of children the school may admit. The court unanimously held that a provincial government had no authority to override a school’s policy.

This means the school can determine how many pupils it can enrol in a class next year.

The ruling pertained to principal Carol Drysdale’s refusal at the beginning of 2012 to admit a Grade 1 pupil because the school was full and the Grade 1 classes could not accommodate another child.

But the Gauteng Department of Education disagreed and ordered that the child be admitted, and hauled Drysdale before a disciplinary hearing.

The school’s governing body then took the matter to court. In December, the court ruled in the department’s favour. Judge Boissie Mbha ruled that “power to determine the maximum capacity of a public school in Gauteng vests in the Gauteng Department of Education and not in the school governing body”.

The school then took the matter on appeal.

The SCA said the provincial government had made a issue out of the fact that the school was located in an affluent, historically white suburb and had benefited from apartheid. It was done to justify an argument that the Gauteng education MEC ought to have the power to override a school’s policy, to ensure that schools in historically white areas did not entrench racially discriminatory privilege.

The court said the facts of the case showed these assertions were not relevant in deciding the issue.

The judges hoped the Gauteng Education Department would act on their suggestion to rectify the injustice done to Drysdale. It suggested the department retract the disciplinary sanctions against her and issue a public apology.

The SCA ordered the MEC, the head of the department, and the district director of Johannesburg East, to pay the costs of the appeal.

“School principals are often the targets of the department’s interference. However, this judgment is very clear on the issue: ‘Hands off the principals’,” Fedsas, a voluntary association of school governing bodies of public schools, said. Sapa