Karen Mac Gregor reports on a proposed new power structure for the education system. The control of South African parents over the education of their children is to be dramatically increased once proposals in the government's just-released White Paper 2, The Organisation, Governance and Funding of Schools, are made law.
Despite entering a new two-tier system, comprising public (state) and independent (private) schools, governing bodies at Model C schools - well resourced formerly white schools which opted for greater independence under the former government - will retain their current powers.
Parents at all other state schools will gain significant new powers. But no state schools will have the power to exclude pupils on grounds of race. Non-discrimination is a bottom line of new education policy, as right-wing parents at the Potgiersrus primary school in Northern Province discovered last week when their efforts to keep the school all-white were overturned by a Supreme Court ruling.
The school - which caused a furore when it barred black children from admission, saying the school was full (which it was not) and had the constitutional right to protect the Afrikaner language and culture - was forced to admit 21 black pupils last Thursday. The response of many Afrikaner parents was to take their children out of school.
The powers of governing bodies outlined in the white paper include: negotiating teacher and staff appointments; setting admissions policies, school times, language policy, curriculum choices, extra-mural activities, codes of behaviour for staff and pupils; controlling funds, budget priorities, purchases and payments; and maintaining buildings.
Appointments and admissions policies will have to be set in consultation with provincial education departments, while curriculum issues will have to follow provincial or national guidelines.
Governing bodies will comprise a majority of parents, plus teachers, pupils in secondary schools, non-teaching staff, the principal (ex-officio) and members of the community.
Not all governing bodies will have the same degree of control. The decision-making powers of each body will be selected from a menu of "basic powers" to be agreed between the body and the province, based on the body's experience and capacity. They will also be able to negotiate additional functions.
The introduction of democratic school governance, the White Paper says, will require a comprehensive inter-school programme to build capacity for management and governance in schools.
This will be achieved by sharing expertise, an education management information system and a national education management training institute. "Once implemented, the vast majority of South Africans will recognise that this decision constitutes by far the most significant devolution of responsibility to school governing bodies in the history of South African education," the White Paper says.
It heralds several other changes. These include the reorganisation of different kinds of state schools into one public school category, new language policies, funding from the public purse, the payment of teachers' salaries by the provinces and the redeployment of some teachers.
After nearly two years in office, Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu is yet to make a final decision on how schools should be financed - although he has often stressed that the new system will be geared towards equalising funding at all schools and redressing past imbalances.
In a South African Schools Bill, to be tabled this year, the government will make a final ruling on whether governing bodies will be able to employ additional teachers from their own funds. This is a crucial issue to well staffed (white, Indian and Coloured) schools which are likely to lose teachers under new staff provisioning scales.
However, the White Paper implies that public schools may be able to charge compulsory income-related fees and to raise funds privately.
This would be desirable for schools which face major budget cuts, and for the continued flow of private money into a public system which the government cannot afford. The alternative would be a downward levelling of all schools.
"The ministry recognises that it will be the duty of public school governing bodies to enhance the quality of educational provision in their schools by all means within their power," the White Paper says.
This should permit schools to raise funds outside public sources - but might run into problems of equity, since a school's ability to raise private funds will be related to the relative wealth or poverty of its parent community.