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Taking a cane to education excellence

Sunday Times Editorial | 2011-12-11 01:16:20.0

Sunday Times Editorial: A LANDMARK judgment has given the Department of Education the power to determine class sizes and to control admissions at all of its schools. This power was previously in the hands of school governing bodies. In his decision, Judge Boissie Mbha seeks to put an end to racially skewed admissions in "traditionally white areas".

The Department of Education went to court after a school refused to admit a pupil because, it said, it had filled all its places.

This part of his judgment is worth quoting in full:

"The second applicant [the school] is no exception to this pattern of continued racial disparity. It operates in a predominantly white area and continues to serve a predominantly white group of children, while maintaining the lowest learner-to-class ratio in the area.

"The applicants contend that the school governing body had to raise private funds for the construction of nine of the school's 30 classrooms and to employ additional teachers to attain the current low learner-to-class ratio in the area.

"However, whilst the applicants' desire to offer the best possible education for its learners is laudable, the constitution does not permit the interest of a few learners to override the right of all other learners in the area to receive a basic education."

There can be no argument that South Africa's government schools must offer all children education of a sufficient standard to allow them an equal opportunity to succeed.

The question that remains unanswered is how this is to be achieved without destroying the diminishing pockets of excellence within the public schooling system.

The department can use its power over admissions to force what are called "former Model C" schools to admit vastly higher pupil numbers. The effect would be to reduce the quality of teaching on offer.

Or it could seek to ensure that admissions at these schools properly reflect the racial demographic of their catchment areas. It goes without saying that these catchment areas could be redefined to ensure that they are not solely based on "traditionally white areas".

While these interventions would change the face of these schools, it would have no effect on the vast majority of pupils, who would still find themselves on the receiving end of below-par education in township schools.

Instead of despising and seeking to undermine "former Model C" schools, the government should see to it that they are racially representative.

And, more importantly, it should seek to implement this successful model of schooling throughout its system.

This would entail having the political guts to break the union stranglehold over teacher deployment and to finally properly manage struggling schools.

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