Race and class still define our schools

Education is intimately related to social class. In sociologist Max Weber’s terms, “life chances” are heavily dependent on education and qualifications.

Elites use wealth and influence to gain access for their children to privileged schools and high-ranking universities, not only because of the status these confer but also because they generally offer a “better” education than is available in less well-endowed segments of the education system. Less well-off parents equally aspire to gain the best possible education for their children: some will dispatch their offspring to private schools, some choose to live in districts known for the quality of their state schools and others will scrimp and save to pay fees for schooling to gain whatever advantage they can for their children.

Many parents will subscribe to the progressive ideals of a “liberal” education as enabling children to develop their talents to the full. Yet most parents will tend to view education in terms of market opportunity: how possession or nonpossession of a “good education” opens or closes doors to secure, well-paying, perhaps even prestigious jobs.

Educational opportunity both reflects and shapes class systems. Even where policymakers display the best of intentions, wealthier areas will tend to have “better” schools, whereas the worst-performing schools will usually be found in the poorest areas. This is generally a matter of resources: even where state policies implement corrective measures, “better” schools will boast better facilities, smaller classes and better teachers, and staff and parents will fight hard to maintain such advantages.

Often these struggles revolve around admission policies and the capacity of schools to decide who may be admitted. Exclusion of would-be pupils may be justified on numerous grounds: the need to maintain smaller classes, pupils’ demonstrated ability, the capacity to pay, and the “ethos” of particular schools (such as their denominational foundations).

Struggles to do with admission are, in fact, very often class struggles: keeping the unwanted out to maintain perceived advantage for those children who have been let in. Talented or fortunate individuals from less advantaged backgrounds may prove able to buck the system and rise up through it, even gaining entry to the best universities (the “scholarship” boy or girl being a well-known phenomenon).

Generally, however, individuals’ class backgrounds will determine their classroom experience, although some countries’ education systems are more open to upward social mobility than others and some systems may be more open during some historical periods than others.

It is against this background that the role education plays in shaping the black middle class in contemporary South African society can be evaluated. Three major conclusions may be drawn from the way the changing education system has reshaped the South African class structure, and the black middle class more specifically, over recent decades.

The most fundamental point is that the deracialisation and expansion of the education system, starting in the 1970s and gaining pace since 1994, have massively improved opportunities for black upward mobility. In significant part, this has unfolded in response to the changing needs of the economy. As white upward movement into the higher ranks of society has opened up class space below, as industry has expanded and as requirements for a more highly skilled and educated workforce have increased generally, so have the opportunities for black people to obtain a good education.

Already by the 1960s, the Bantu education model – designed to produce a docile black working class – was becoming hopelessly outdated and the government was henceforth to widen opportunities for black people, albeit within segregated institutions, to expand the ranks of a subaltern black middle class.

By the 1980s, when it was confronting combined political and economic crises, the white National Party government quietly started allowing increased rates of black admission into private schools, the upper tiers of the public schooling system and the historically white universities.

Subsequently, democratisation brought with it a historic transformation of the education system. Segregated educational structures have been completely swept away and, formally at least, the system has become deracialised. Both the schooling and higher education systems have been radically restructured and levels of black access to educational opportunities have been massively increased. These openings are being seized on by black parents and students, who recognise the crucial role played by education in enhancing life opportunities. A good education is explicitly perceived as necessary for staying within, or entering, the middle class.

If this is the good news, the bad news is that there is as much continuity as change. The deracialisation that has taken place has remained heavily skewed along class lines. Whereas the top tiers of the system, both public and private, have been opened up to black people, the bottom tiers – which are generally poorly resourced and of poor quality – continue to serve overwhelmingly poor and black constituencies.

No wonder black parents do their utmost to avoid sending their children to this bottom tier by getting them into former Model C schools, opting for private education or simply ensuring that they attend the “best” public schools available. They view education primarily as enabling children to access the job market.

Equally, the two-tiered system lends itself to the preservation of privilege. Elites, both black and white, look to the private schools, top-ranked public schools and the “traditional” universities to protect their familial status and their children’s prospects. Far from importing middle-class energy, critique and pressure into the entirety of the public schooling system, the retention of the Model Cs has further entrenched the advantage already enjoyed by the top tiers of that system, in effect leaving the lower tiers to degenerate.

Within this elite context, there remain many instances of parents using their influence to contain deracialisation, thereby ensuring the continuation of a significant element of racial privilege. Where, in contrast, some institutions employ racial criteria in the proclaimed interest of furthering black advancement at a perceived cost to whites, it provokes huge middle-class angst.

In sum, rather than race simply being replaced by class within the educational sphere since 1994, race and class now play off against each other in a complicated dialectic around shared notions of “middle-classness” and contested notions of how the apex of South African society should be reformed.

By seeking on the one hand to satisfy the needs of the changing economy and by continuing on the other to provide for class privilege and high status, the education system reinforces the dominant values of capitalist society. Today, whereas the top schools and universities make much of their pursuit of personally liberating models of education, they join the lower tiers in gearing their practice to the instrumental end of enabling their pupils and students to enter the capitalist job market.

If this is the manifest function of the education system, then, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would argue, it channels students towards an unquestioning acceptance of the established social system, as part of the natural order of things.

Roger Southall is professor emeritus in the University of the Witwatersrand’s sociology department. This is an edited extract from his new book, The Black Middle Class in South Africa, published by Jacana and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, to be launched at Wiser on March 15 at 6pmRace, class still define our schools

Roger Southall
Roger Southall
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