Parents take school to court over forced English tuition

This is not the first time court action has been launched by parents or a school in a bid to retain or change the language of learning for pupils. (Delwyn Verasamy)

This is not the first time court action has been launched by parents or a school in a bid to retain or change the language of learning for pupils. (Delwyn Verasamy)

A group of concerned parents at a Northern Cape school have taken Vela Langa Primary School in Pabalelo to court for forcing its pupils to learn in English – a move the parents say violates students' right to a basic education.

"The basic education department’s policies and the constitution promotes learning in your mother tongue in the early years and the constitution says you have a right to learn in the language of your choice – that right has been violated. Policies state learners should be allowed to be taught," Zolile Prusente, parent and chairperson of the group Make the Foundation Right – established to challenge the promote multilingual education and challenge the school’s new language policy. 

Rights group Section 27 filed an application in Kimberley’s high court on Monday on behalf of the group that said that the school’s governing body and its principal implemented the policy at the primary school without consulting properly with parents.

"English is a language the pupils are not proficient in, so forcing them to be taught in a language they don’t understand is tantamount to oppression," Prusente said.

The founding affidavit says that of the 1 224 pupils over 45% speak Afrikaans in their homes, over 33% speak isiXhosa, 19% speak Setswana and only one pupil speaks English as his home language.

'Solid foundation'
A supporting affidavit by Leketi Makalela, deputy head of the division of languages, literacies and literatures at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that being taught in a language other than a pupil’s home language, especially in the early years resulted in a pupil "not receiving a solid foundation in literary skills… makes it difficult for the pupil to learn any other language… [and] the learner’s identity and overall performance are adversely affected".

The case comes in the wake of ongoing heated debate among educators about what language pupils should be taught in in the first three years of schooling.

Attorney at Section 27, Nikki Stein, said the basic education department’s Language in Education policy encourages mother tongue instruction in the first three years of education but also the acquisition of additional languages from an early age through the first additional language subject.

"Importantly, though, the policy stresses the right to choose the language of learning and teaching, within the framework of multilingualism," she said.

Court action
This is not the first time court action has been launched by parents or a school in a bid to retain or change the language of learning for pupils.

But unlike some other cases where it was alleged that the language of learning was used to exclude certain race groups, this case was "purely about the choice to receive education in the language of one's choice and the obligations of school governing bodies to consult when they take decisions such as these" Stein said.

Parent Neville Mathiesie said the majority of parents would not be able to meaningfully participate in their pupils’ education because they did not speak English.

"How will they help them with homework? How will that child progress at school," he said.

"Since the policy was implemented we’ve seen a decrease in pupils results. Our children are not performing well. The principal should be able to see this."

Policy
A meeting was held between the principal and the school’s governing body "with only a few parents", he said "and they were not informed properly about the policy".

"Some of the school’s governing body? members don’t even know about this policy… there was no meaningful consultation with us."

Temba Smit, the school’s governing body chairperson, said parents were offered a range of language policies to choose from "and they went with the one that said pupils would be taught in English, because many years ago that is the language that black township schools were taught in".

The policy was drawn up "after consultation with all the relevant stakeholders", he said. 

"We did not leave anyone out. We deny that there was no proper consultation."

The school’s principal, Annie Silwana, declined to comment. 

The respondent’s have until the end of next week to file their notice to oppose.

 
Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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