SA education: Time to give black parents and children more choices

With the ongoing protests happening in Brackenfell it is an opportune time to ask broader questions about why so many parents of colour have so few choices when it comes to the schooling of their children.

In January last year a similar protest erupted at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke over a photograph showing black pupils sitting far away behind a door from white pupils in a classroom at the school where Afrikaans is the medium of instruction.

It is important to mention that one parent, Dr Thabiso Maolwane, contradicted the accusations of racism and told a journalist that a teacher had explained to him that seating arrangements change throughout the year and that initially teachers placed the 5 year old pupils according to language, thinking it would comfort them during the pre-play introduction. The teacher made assumptions about language and familiarity to support her assumption, an assumption Dr Maolwane accepted because of the positive experiences of his children at the school. 

What is also telling about Doctor Maolwane is that he lives in the Ipelegeng, a formerly blacks-only township in the area. This is important to mention because Dr Maolwane chose not to send his child to a nearby township school and simply did not have the choice of sending his children to a quality school that can instruct them in their home language. That is instructive and indicates a 26-year-long system wide and institutional failure. 

In a country so engulfed in race consciousness, what happened and the media circus that surrounded Schweizer-Reneke should have given us pause, and pushed us to ask why so many black parents, with the notable exception of Dr Maolwane, send their children to schools they perceive as hostile to them.

This article isn’t about whether Hoerskool Brackenfell or indeed Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke are racist places or not, but rather to probe the issue of why parents of colour are essentially forced to send their children to schools they perceive as hostile to their children. They are forced into this unenviable position because there is a dearth not only of good township schools (for those pupils who travel from there to former Model C schools), but also of schools that offer home language instruction which various studies link to higher academic achievement.

In an environment of broader school choice, parents themselves can vote with their money which schools should be formed and how they should be oriented, rather than by diktat from special interest groups and unions. It is important that parents are also empowered to make these choices, especially poor and working-class parents who often struggle to access school choice to a level that the middle and upper class parents can. The voucher system can be introduced incrementally and evaluated on its results as compared to state schools in similar areas.

How would this proposal work?

Introducing school choice into the system via school vouchers. School vouchers are simply certificates of government handed to pupils or their parents so they can choose which school they want the pupil to attend. It functions like a scholarship, based on the constitutional right of every child to a quality education. 

As the expenditure numbers show it is possible to theoretically purchase a quality of education for every pupil that is on par with low fee intermediate schools. According to education researcher Nic Spaull, the government spent an average of R15 963 per pupil in 2019. This is similar enough to Spark schools which charge a discounted fee of R24 000 for the year in 2021 in primary school and Curro Foreshore which will charge in the range of R26 220 to R28 500 in 2021 for grades 8 to 10. These fees factor in that these schools are in the more affluent areas and therefore incur higher costs. 

The vouchers themselves could even be weighted based on factors such as household income, special needs, and a variety of other factors which could form the framework for a minimum standard of education. It is even possible to apply Anthea Jeffrey's (Institute of Race Relations) suggestion of awarding businesses equity points similar to BBEEE points for topping up the vouchers of students from poor communities.

The voucher system can be implemented incrementally by creating large enough specialized zones in and around a major township areas in Durban (Umlazi), Cape Town (Khayelitsha) and Johannesburg (Soweto), where private providers are incentivized to invest and build in those townships and introduce competition where state schools either must improve or face closure. 

Parents themselves can then choose a school based on performance and the needs of their children. In this way the education providers will be forced to be competitive in order to stay open and a point must be made here. If intermediate low fee schools are good enough for middle class and upper middle-class families then surely they are good enough for working class and poor parents?

By creating specialized zones in prominent townships for the voucher system you allow both community members and the broader public to see the effect that school vouchers can have compared to forcing pupils into state schools. You essentially want to create discontent amongst parents from other townships and informal areas because they will want vouchers for their children too.

This article was first published on City Press on 27 November 2020
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