A critical link in the chain

THE image of schools making their own decisions, raising their own funds, and functioning as thriving community centres is a wonderful one. But how real is it?

Many schools have been able to grab the reins of their new-found freedom granted by democracy and have soared to greater heights. They have managed to raise funds for more facilities, adopted novel educational programmes and come up with innovative ways of drawing neighbourhood communities into their activities. They are the small minority, however. Most schools, unfortunately, particularly those disadvantaged from apartheid days, are still suffering in the wilderness: teachers and parents lack the skills and knowledge base to run their school governing bodies effectively, a lack of resources and support means textbooks and stationery are in short supply, teachers are struggling alone with the new curriculum, schools are increasingly vulnerable to abuse by criminals and gangsters … the list goes on. Many schools actually say they were better off in the dark old days of apartheid!

Our South African Schools Act was lauded for the way it empowered schools to run their own affairs and fell so perfectly in line with the principles of a democracy — governance from the bottom up. But it is clear from the steadily worsening matric results that most schools are not managing to do things for themselves. They need all the help that they can get, and they’re not getting much. The nice-sounding policy of the 1990s has sorely neglected a critical link in the delivery chain — the district level.

Currently, the country’s 167 districts are functioning at half capacity; many district officials go to work each day but have no job to do; some district offices house empty desks and little else. What has happened to this critical interface between schools and their provincial administrations? Ever since the days when inspectors, discredited as ”stooges of the apartheid era”, were chased out of schools, the district system has been left to flounder.

The Ministry of Education, alarmed by the declining results, is beginning to brandish the big stick. MECs are doing spot checks, and the national education department is to appoint crack teams for each province to help non-performing schools pull up their socks. But what schools really need is proper help in the form of human faces from the districts — people who visit them regularly and see to their every need. The government must attend to this level urgently by appointing more staff, training officials and empowering them to make key decisions and to help schools in all areas — school governance, the new curriculum, fund-raising, textbook delivery, teacher appraisals to name a few. Otherwise our schools will continue to flounder on their own.

— The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, May, 2000.


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