Court tussle over school feeder zones resumes
Thousands of children, especially those from the townships, have been excluded from attending well-resourced schools in Gauteng because of a controversial piece of legislation whose validity once again came under review in the Constitutional Court this week.
As a result of the current admission requirements, some parents have resorted to lying about where they live in a desperate attempt to get their children into quality public schools.
One child unashamedly revealed how her mother tricked Winston Park Primary School and Hillcrest High School, outside Durban, into enrolling her and her siblings by providing a false residential address.
“If that is a criminal act, then maybe the department of basic education should criminalise disparities in schools – that is the greater injustice!” she wrote in a Facebook post.
Commenting on the same issue, Kabelo Leotlela posted this on Facebook: “The location aspect should be scrapped as it forces apartheid locations and instantly puts black kids in township schools even if they want to go to other areas.”
In terms of the current school admission regulations, pupils living within a 5km radius of a school – or those who have a parent working in the area – have a right to attend that school. These applicants are automatically placed on waiting list A, whereas those from outside the 5km radius are relegated to waiting list B.
The Mail & Guardian has established that, of the 80 pupils admitted to grade one at Parkview Junior School in Johannesburg this year, only seven of the 35 on waiting list B got in.
Walter Essex-Clark, the principal of Northcliff High School, situated in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Blackheath, confirmed that only a handful of applicants from waiting list B were accepted every year.
“Every school is unique and the ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t cater for [that],” he said.
Equal Education (EE), a movement of learners, parents, teachers and community members, said that admissions policy lies at the heart of the problem. On Thursday it was argued in the Constitutional Court that using “geographical locations will continue to reinforce racial segregation”.
EE was admitted as a friend of the court in a case involving the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) and the Gauteng education department.
Fedsas is appealing last year’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruling, which found that the Gauteng education department had the final say over schools’ admission policies and feeder zones.
The appeal court set aside an earlier order by acting Judge AJ Janse van Nieuwenhuizen in the Johannesburg high court in 2013, after Fedsas successfully challenged the amended regulations.
Following the appeal court’s reversal of Van Nieuwenhuizen’s finding, Fedsas applied for leave to appeal to the Constitutional Court in a bid to get it to confirm Van Nieuwenhuizen’s earlier judgment.
Although EE was at pains to point out that it agreed with then-education MEC Barbara Creecy’s submissions, it took strong exception to the so-called “default feeder zone regime” that determined school feeder zones “solely on the basis of proximity [to a school]”.
In its submission to the court, EE said that, because geography and race are inextricably linked in Gauteng, “black learners will primarily live in historically black areas. They will fall into the feeder zones for historically black schools that continue to be poor, under-resourced and under-performing.”
In contrast, it maintains, “white learners living in affluent, previously white areas will fall into the feeder zones for historically white privileged schools”, creating “an admission system that indirectly discriminates on the grounds of race and colour”.
Brahm Fleisch, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, said the feeder zone system was “reasonable, workable and consistent with the spirit of the country’s Constitution”.
“It will be a great injustice if children who live in close proximity to a school are, for whatever reason, precluded from access to that school,” he said.
“Many of our middle-class schools in historically white areas are not full and therefore many learners, depending on the school, are from outside the immediate zone.”
Mary Metcalfe, visiting adjunct professor at the Wits school of education, said she found it hard to see a reasonable alternative to “zoning” because of the practical problems of requiring children to travel away from their homes.
“The only sustainable solution will be to make more schools serving poorer communities not only excellent, but also to be perceived to be so, so that more children can enjoy the right to quality education in the communities in which they live,” she said.
The proposal that has governing bodies up in arms
This is one of the controversial amendments that has been included in the Gauteng education department’s Regulations on Admission of Learners to Public Schools (2012):
Feeder zones for admission of entry-phase learners (those wanting to be enrolled in grades R, one and eight):
1. Subject to the National Education Policy Act (No 27 of 1996) and other applicable laws, the MEC may, by notice in the Provincial Gazette, determine the feeder zone for any school in the province, after consultations with the relevant stake-holders have been conducted.
2. Until such time as the MEC has determined a feeder zone for a particular school, in relation to a learner applying for admission to that school, the feeder zone for that school will be deemed to have been determined so that a place of residence or work falls within the feeder zone, if:
(a) relative to that place of residence or place of work, the school is the closest school which the learner is eligible to attend, or
(b) that place of residence or place of work for that parent is within a 5km radius of the school.
3. The MEC may, by notice in the Provincial Gazette, designate one or more primary schools as feeder primary schools for a particular high school.
4. Until such time as the MEC has designated one or more primary schools as feeder primary schools for a particular high school, in relation to a learner applying for admission to that high school, any primary school to which that high school is the closest high school that the learner is eligible to attend shall be deemed to have been designated as a feeder primary school for that high school. – Prega Govender