Dunce cap for Cosas as parents score A for effort

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Jul 19 15:48:21 UTC 2005

>>From Business Day (South AFrica)
Tuesday, 19 July 2005

Dunce cap for Cosas as parents score A for effort
Dave Marrs


DEMOCRACY and the rule of law are fine concepts, but the truth is they can
be darned inconvenient at times. Just ask the Congress of South African
Students (Cosas), which has promised mass rolling action to protest
against a recent Supreme Court of Appeal decision dismissing an appeal by
Western Capes education department against a lower court ruling. The
ruling prevented the department from forcing the parents governing body of
an Afrikaans primary school to admit English-speaking children, a move
that would require it to change its language policy.

The quaint choice of words may make it sound as if Cosas is organising a
giant game of marbles to mark the opening of the third school term, but
the reality is rather more sinister. To quote Cosas secretary-general Mpho
Sesedinyane, the intention is to invade this reactionary school that
resists transformation (and)  undermines the will of the people. If it
means we should make Western Cape ungovernable, we will do so without fear
of any contradictions.

To his credit, Western Cape education MEC Cameron Dugmore intervened
smartly to rein in the Cosas hotheads. But Dugmore tried to bully Larskool
Mikros governing body into changing the institution into a dual-medium
facility in the first place, at ridiculously short notice. He announced on
Friday that he would not appeal to the Constitutional Court, but he cannot
escape responsibility for provoking an entirely unnecessary racially
charged conflict in a bid to cover his own shortcomings.

The mainly black and poor pupils who wanted to be taught in English have a
right to learn and need to be catered for, but not by shifting
responsibility from the state to Mikros parents by dumping them at a
school that has been geared to teach solely in Afrikaans since 1973,
especially since other options had not been properly explored. The
constitution and Schools Act give communities, particularly parents, a
range of rights to determine how they want things run and the type of
institution they want their offspring to attend. Considering the amount of
responsibility for schooling government has managed to offload to parents
over the past decade, especially in finance and management, this is as it
should be.

As long as parents are paying taxes and school fees, with a negligible
contribution from the state, and the schools serve the community they
represent without discriminating unfairly or depriving anybody of their
constitutional rights, government would be wise to butt out. Education
Minister Naledi Pandor is also struggling with this simple concept, and
for much the same reason as Dugmore. Several years of poor policy
decisions and throwing money at poorly performing black schools have, not
surprisingly, failed to achieve the desired result. Not even miraculously
improved matric results can hide the fact that many state schools are in

So, lately, Pandor has been muttering about the need to change the law to
reduce the powers of governing bodies, especially those involving the
hiring of staff and setting of fees and admission policies. There have
been isolated cases of governing bodies manipulating admission policies to
exclude children for racist reasons, or setting unreasonably high fees to
keep out the poor. And many formerly white schools have not appointed
enough suitably qualified black teachers, although most have made steady
progress in reaching a more representative racial balance in the pupil

On the whole, though, formerly white schools have done a better job of
transforming themselves than those in the townships, while managing to
maintain education standards. This is largely because parents of all
colours have remained involved and resigned themselves to paying
ever-increasing fees, privileges many will be tempted to forgo if
governing bodies rights are watered down.

The real problem lies in rural areas and the townships, where governments
policy errors are coming home to roost. There are not enough qualified
teachers; the best and most experienced are tempted by lucrative
opportunities elsewhere, working conditions are rotten and little has been
done to step up training programmes to replace those teachers cut down by
AIDS. Curricula have been changed without proper planning, a disciplinary
system based on corporal punishment was abolished before a workable
alternative was in place, and teachers administrative burden has
mushroomed. These are the issues Pandor should address, rather than meddle
with the only part of the education system still working.

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