Fewer than half of public schools had effective school governing bodies in 2011. The worst case was the Free State with 34% and next was the Eastern Cape with 41%. The highest-scoring province was the Western Cape with 67%.
This was the picture Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga painted at the national conference on school governance in Johannesburg early in November, attended by delegates from all nine provinces.
These figures provide a vivid measure of the trouble the schools are in. They are also a stark reminder that it is not just the public school system itself that is at fault. Parents bear a large responsibility for what happens in their children's schools. Worldwide, parental involvement is a marked feature of economically successful and developed societies, and research consistently shows that it has a positive impact on pupil achievement.
The government has long recognised that South African parents need to support their children's schools. The 1996 Schools Act, for instance, makes it mandatory that parents make up 50% of school governing bodies. But securing that level of involvement is difficult when the majority of parents are socioeconomically deprived.
But it is not sufficient to make excuses for absent parents and ways must be found to drive a social movement that results in greater parental and community support for education. This is the overriding concern of the hosts of the conference, the National Association of School Governing Bodies and the Kagiso Trust, which has been working in community development in South Africa for more than 25 years.
The core focus of the department of basic education is to improve the pupils' performance, a goal shared by all activists involved in education, no matter who the stakeholders are or what programmes they are implementing.
But the association and the Kagiso Trust are interested in more than just the approaches that are working best: they are convinced that, as a country, we need a much more collaborative and co-ordinated effort to ensure that the programmes and policies that are working should be widespread, particularly to marginalised communities, which need support the most. And they believe that effective school governance is a primary vehicle for achieving this.
"School governance is crucial in determining the future of education in the country," Matakanye Matakanye, the association's acting general secretary, said in his address to the conference. "A more rounded approach to school governance, particularly parental involvement, is key to ensuring a better quality of education for learners and a level of guidance that will give learners that much-needed edge."
Parental involvement communities
To this end, the association has been campaigning for the establishment of parental involvement committees, headed by a member of the school governing body and including two parents elected per class, to work closely with class teachers, subject teachers, heads of department and the parents of each class.
In many communities, parents need to be taught how to supervise homework and implement a daily study routine, and parental involvement in the committees could make an important contribution to this. They could also represent the parent body on issues such as pupil discipline and substance and sexual abuse, and ensure that parents get involved in other campaigns and programmes at their children's schools.
In essence, the association hopes to establish a wider leadership network that can effectively and quickly influence the mindset of uninterested parents and promote a culture of involvement in schools.
Parents are heavily influenced by their peer group, which the association appreciates. It also knows that, when parents are given a platform on which they can speak to each other, they can move mountains. This is the kind of energy that the association aims to harness at underperforming schools.
For its part, the Kagiso Trust heads up a very successful holistic intervention — its flagship Beyers Naudé schools development programme — at selected schools and one of the pillars of the programme is school governance. The matric pass rates have soared at these schools since the programme was started six years ago. There has also been an inspiring growth in accountability and commitment among all participants and major advances in teacher morale.
The trust aims to collaborate with the association and the basic education department to extend its approach to school governance throughout South Africa.
When I addressed the conference, I said that, because so many parents are inhibited by the circumstances of their lives, and even intimidated by a system that they themselves poorly understand, let's come together and show leadership — let's find a way to encourage parents to come forward and show them that they have a role to play in providing a quality education for their children.
Much of the conference focused on building capacity for the association. No matter how noble the aspirations of an organisation, the structural foundations must be laid to ensure that it can achieve its goals.
The conference focused on measures to strengthen the association's capacity to fulfil its function as the vanguard of improving the schooling of the nation's children.
Most significant is that regional branches of the association will be established in preparation for the next conference, which will be held in June next year.
The network of influence will be spread and we at the Kagiso Trust will support this movement all the way.
Themba Mola is the chief operations officer of the Kagiso Trust, a national development non-governmental organisation