Another country, another apartheid

25th August 2000 at 01:00
THIRTY years ago, armed with my primary school report, I marched with my mother into one of the three best black high schools in Cape Town, filled in the application form and left.

There were two high schools in the township I lived in. I never considered applying to them. Like any black South African child, I'd been raised with the refrain: "They can take everything from you but not your education."

Back then, politics dictated that we deprive the government of as many hewers of wood and drawers of water as possible. Getting the best education meant going to the state schools with the best reputations. And I went.

Of course I know now that it wasn't that simple for those not blessed with good reports. They always knew they'd go to the local schools with poorer reputations for academic achievement.

One could say that the choices facing my parents in 1970 South Africa were not that different from those facing me and my partner in Britain today. Instead of exclusive whiteprivate schools, there are exclusive richprivate schools. Instead of the best black state schools creaming off the best students, there are selective state schools doing the same.

Instead of local township schools taking all comers, there are local comprehensives.

Politics (apartheid and our boycott) and money meant I couldn't go to white or private schools. Politics (our support for state education) and money exclude our daughter from a private school.

The head of our local township school once told my dad that if all parents of bright children sent their kids locally all the schools would produce good results. The same as is being argued today for sending children to their local comprehensives. For us, there are further motivating factors. Our local comprehensive doesn't, directly or indirectly, exclude our kind - refugees, immigrants, most black people, working-class people - people who can't afford private primary schooling or tutors to gear their kids for the entrance exams of selective schools. Also, my husband taught, our friends teach, in comprehensives. To send our daughter to a selective school would be a vote of no confidence in them.

But from the school gate mafia to the local lbrarian everyone shakes their heads mournfully: "You want to send her to a comprehensive! You must be mad!", Everyone says they, in principle, support comprehensive education but can't believe we'd "sacrifice" our daughter to that principle. Give your child the best education. Best equals highest on league tables equals selective school.

And enter my conscience, sounding remarkably like my dad: "You got the best. Are you giving your child the best?" "Everyone" and conscience are powerful forces. They sent me, with child, biking an hour and 40 minutes along very cycle-unfriendly roads to sneak a look at a selective school.

We came back a lot more quickly. Maybe it was the caretaker eyeing our non-snazzy bike gear with distaste as he told us where to leave the bikes.

Maybe it was being jostled by too many richly-garbed parents armed with lists of the school's achievements.

Maybe it was seeing no black member of staff and bitterly few black pupils. Maybe it was the hostiledisdainful response to The Question. "We choose our staff by ability, not colour."

Translation: No black adult is rated as good enough to work for the school.

Maybe it was just the whole cold and thrusting atmosphere. Maybe it was the cost of the uniform and equipment which would exclude any poor child who managed to pass the entrance exam.

So why did our girl insist on sitting the exam? Call it flying the flag for inner-city schools. She did it to "show everyone that I can get in - I just don't want to go to that horrible place."

She says that the selective system "cheats because it only takes clever children. That's why it does well. It's nothing to do with the teaching."

She doesn't want to go to another school where there are no black staff and few black children.

So, when I turned down the offer from the selective school, we were getting her into the best school. It's just that best doesn't just mean best academic reputation. It means a school which welcomes all children, regardless of background or ability and encourages them to fulfil their potential.

Shereen Pandit is a short story writer and poet. She moved from South Africa in 1986 and now lives in London.

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