Power balance key to success

It was a long, hard battle for the majority of parents in South Africa to have the right to govern schools so plainly recognised. But with the state regularly challenging the limits of influence set out for it in law, the battle for parents to retain the recognition of this right may be equally long and hard.

The 1995 Education White Paper 1 made this statement of principle: ‘The rehabilitation of schools and colleges must go hand in hand with the restoration of the ownership of these institutions to their communities through the establishment and empowerment of legitimate, representative governance bodies.”

Before this, very few schools had structures in which stakeholder groups could have a meaningful and legitimate input in education.

The White Paper developed this theme further by stating:” The principle of democratic governance should increasingly be reflected in every level of the system, by the involvement in consultation and appropriate forms of decision-making of elected representatives of the main stakeholders, interest groups and role players.

This requires a commitment by education authorities at all levels, to share all relevant information with stakeholder groups, and to treat them genuinely as partners.

This is the only guaranteed way to infuse new social energy into the institutions and structures of the education and training system, dispel the chronic alienation of large sectors of society from the educational process, and reduce the power of the government administration to intervene where it should not.”

In 1996, the South African Schools Act (Sasa) made provision for these democratic structures and for a democratic process in which representatives of all the stakeholders (parents, educators, non-educators, learners in secondary schools and even the government) are elected to school governing bodies (SGBs).

The government is represented by the principal of the school, who is made an ex officio member of the SGB. However, the principal is but one of many governors on the SGB and has but one vote. A principal does not have a casting vote or a more important vote than any of the other members of the SGB.

Sasa is also very clear that parents should always form the majority of a SGB. The White Paper, which correctly states: ‘Parents or guardians have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and have the right to be consulted by state authorities with respect to the form that education should take and to take part in its governance.

Parents have the right to choose the form of education that is best for their children, particularly in the early years of schooling, whether provided by the state or not, subject to reasonable safeguards which may be required by law.

The parents’ right to choose includes choice of the language, cultural or religious foundation of the child’s education, with due respect to the rights of others and the rights of choice of the growing child.”

The fact that parents form the majority of members of an SGB does not automatically mean that their voice should be the only one heard in the SGB or the affairs of the school. It is merely a recognition of the significance of the interest of parents in the education of their children.

Once elected, all members of the SGB become governors. Sasa makes it clear that these governors stand in a position of trust, which means that all members of the SGB must at all times act in the best interests of the school.

Once elected, parents do not represent parents, educators do not represent educators, learners do not represent learners, and the principal does not represent the education authorities on the SGB.

Each is now a governor who represents the school and must always act in its best interest.

If representatives of stakeholders on a governing body believe that they should, at all costs, advance the interests of those who elected them to the SGB, the SGB is doomed to fail.

It becomes a battleground for sectional interests, and without exception it is the school that will be prejudiced and eventually face doom.

There was a great deal of care taken to balance the powers of the various interest groups within SGBs. A lot of care was also taken to establish the limits of the government’s powers in interfering with SGB autonomy.

As the Education White Paper 1 states: ‘Involvement of government authorities in school governance should be limited to the minimum required for legal accountability and should be based on participative management.”

Recent media reports have suggested that there are some who believe that SGBs have too much power and that the rights of SGBs should be curtailed. Such beliefs are underpinned by a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy.

In a democratic state based on the principle of constitutional supremacy, it is the people who wield power. Public schools are essentially organs of civil society and should, therefore, be governed by organs of civil society that are elected in democratic processes.

That much is recognised in the principles contained in the Education White Paper 1 and in the preamble to the Sasa. The involvement of the state should indeed be limited to the minimum required for legal accountability.

The real question is: Is it not the state that has too much power in the affairs of schools? Our Constitution has put us firmly on the way to an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.

State involvement and interference in spheres of public life other than the safety and welfare of its citizens, becomes a breeding ground for totalitarianism. South Africans have deliberately and purposefully chosen to break from such a system.

If SGBs are not able to cope with their rights and responsibilities, because of a lack of capacity, it is the responsibility of all South Africans (not only the state or school communities) to contribute to the strengthening of this pillar of democracy.

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