Glaring inequalities in the education system may be swept away by a radical reform package. Karen Mac Gregor reports.
Radical changes to South Africa's school system have been proposed by a government committee set up to review education. State-aided schools are to be scrapped, new governance structures introduced, spending equalised, compulsory means-tested fees charged and admission policies revised.
The report of the Review Committee on School Organisation, Governance and Funding, a multi-party research and policy team appointed in February this year, was reported to education minister Sibusiso Bengu last Thursday.
There will be a month of consultation with educational stakeholders before the proposals are tabled in parliament.
Though fairly predictable, the report prompted some hysteria in the "white" press, which warned of drastic spending cuts and dropping standards at formerly white schools - and even an exodus of teachers from the country.
One of the most controversial proposals is the scrapping of state-aided schools, which comprise two-thirds of the country's 25,000 schools, including around 2,000 formerly white "Model C" schools.
If the proposals are adopted, South Africa will have two types of school: public and private. New public school governance, organisation and funding systems will be established. Private schools will continue to be partially funded by the state, but under new criteria still to be decided.
The report suggests that the powers of governing bodies should be increased in all current state and state-aided schools except for Model C schools.
Governing bodies comprising parents, teachers, pupils in secondary schools, community members and the school principal ex officio, will have the power to select teachers, who will be appointed by provincial governments.
But, crucially, they will not be able to control admissions policies or charge their own compulsory fees. In the past, many Model C schools have applied criteria such as ability to pay fees and the home language which have excluded black pupils. This will no longer be the case.
The charging of compulsory, means-tested fees is a crucial component of the proposals. A sliding scale of school fees is planned with parents charged according to annual household income.
Provincial governments will decide the charge but, the report suggests, fees could range from nothing for households earning below Pounds 2,000-a-year to around Pounds 160-a-year for a first child, Pounds 125 for a second child and Pounds 83 a year for other children of families earning more than Pounds 8,000-a-year.
Provincial governments will pay for children whose families cannot afford the full fees, to ensure that schools catering for poor families are not disadvantaged. It will be up to schools to pursue parents for fees.
Schools will not be able to charge fees which are higher than the compulsory rate, but will be able to seek extra voluntary fees.
Compulsory charging represents a major compromise: the government needs to continue drawing on South Africa's well of private wealth to help pay for an education system it cannot afford, but could not get away with charging poor families. It hopes to avert opposition to anything but a free and compulsory education system by arguing that education will be free for all needy children.
The school budget will be split into five categories. There will be a capital development programme allocation, based on an index of need, most of which will go to disadvantaged schools. A second category will be an educational redress fund, to be distributed according to needs criteria, to cover libraries, laboratories, equipment. A third slice will be allocated to cover core educational services provided by government at all levels.
By far the biggest slice of the budget will be for salaries, which will be allocated according to a pupil:teacher ratio of 40:1 in primary schools and 35:1 in secondaries. Schools with classes smaller than that will have to lose teachers or fund-raise to keep them, while schools with bigger classes will be allocated more teachers.
To alleviate the current disparities in teachers' salaries - white, Indian and coloured teachers are generally better qualified than African teachers and are thus paid more - criteria such as class size and responsibilities will be taken into account in determining pay.
The fifth allocation will be for operating costs - maintenance, books, service equipment - which will be distributed on a per-capita basis and topped up by fees.
The rationale of the review committee in deciding a new system for South Africa was based on ability to deliver as much as it was on the political and moral imperatives to address injustice and improve education for all.