Public-only schools force equality

(John McCann)

(John McCann)


Education is seen as an investment, one that empowers individuals to climb the ladder.

There is an assumption that the greater the diversity of individuals who make it, the more equal our societies will be.

To make a society just, it must be one of equal opportunity. Meritocracy alone cannot be the distributive mechanism to ensure equality. Rather, the scales need to be tilted so that the children of the poor and the working classes have a fighting chance.

There might be an argument that says, because South Africa is such a highly stratified and racially divided society, the public education system should be the one crucial site of inclusivity where individuals from different backgrounds and classes mix.

This is the dream of a public progressive education as it was imagined by the American educationalist John Dewey. Here, the forces of education themselves are harnessed to counterbalance the pernicious effects of a class stratification.

The provision of public education is not simply a question of economistically correcting the imbalances. Through universal public schooling the classes mix, forge solidarities based on common ethical principles and develop forms of democracy that are deep, transformative and long-lasting. It creates a public sphere in which citizens can make principled decisions collectively.

However noble these ideals may be, we need to think beyond the horizons of both education for equal opportunity and education for egalitarianism. What if the issue at stake is not affordable, accessibleor even free education per se, but a fully decommodified education system, one where private education is abolished?

Both the dreams of egalitarianism and equal opportunity are out of reach so long as private education exists. We tend to believe that the private and the public are separate but somehow commensurable. This means that they do not affect one another but can be judged by the same standards. This is not necessarily true, for in capitalist societies, it is inevitable for the private to contaminate the public sphere.

In a market system, private provision has a deleterious effect on public education. The private sphere sucks human and other resources out of the public sphere. Private schools are well-equipped with educational technologies, are resource- rich and staffed with teachers who are treated as professionals. By advertising themselves in terms of prestige and exclusivity, they attract pupils from the upper classes. Children of the upper classes are predisposed to succeed. Privilege, it seems, is a formula for success.

What does this concentration of privilege in the private sphere mean? Being exposed to legitimate cultural capital from a young age, pupils from affluent backgrounds are familiar with the contents and approaches of the official curriculum. With greater access to devices and information in the home, they are more technologically literate.

As the children of the wealthy benefit from formal early childhood development programmes and are taught in their first language, they are more able than other classes to deal with the cognitive demands of formal schooling.

Such children are better fed, eat more nutritious meals, sleep better and enjoy the time-rich aspects of an upper and middle-class lifestyle. They have substantial leisure and play time.

As private schools attract those who can afford them, an artificial sense of cultural homogeneity develops, offering a supportive feeling of belonging which, in turn, bolsters a sense of pride in learning. There is a high ceiling on the amount of income a private school can obtain because it is partly state subsidised and can demand huge fees.

As a result of this combination of class advantages, private schools have substantially less pedagogical work to do than their public counterparts in reaching academic excellence. Private school teachers work under less strain and pressure, have more incentives and therefore deliver better results. The net result of these unfair advantages: a pupil body emerges that appears destined to succeed academically.

This success initiates a virtuous cycle. Private schools attract wealthy parents, who enrol children who are more predisposed to succeed. As a result, the school does better and thus attracts better quality teaching, and a greater number of wealthy pupils enrol. And so it continues until the school comes to having a reputation for being excellent.

In a scenario where fee-paying public schools are subject to the same commodifying logic as private schools, they begin to emulate their private counterparts in achieving such privileged conditions. Sometimes these conditions are within reach, but more often than not, they aren’t. In the public pursuit of private excellence, the virtuous cycle closes. Public schools, in their emulation of private schools, may begin to subtly restrict entry for poorer pupils, discourage exemption applications and encourage the enrolment of richer clientele.

Problems in a given system are displaced and concentrated in one area, and advantages in another. In education, the social problems are concentrated in the public sector, particularly in no-fee schools at the lower end of the quintile where the children of the poorest are to be found. Under a set of drastically unequal circumstances, private education providers then claim that private is superior when the result might, in fact, be an expression of class distinction realised on a structural level.

In contrast, the conditions in many public schools are sub-standard. The material infrastructure necessary for pupils to succeed is patchy or almost absent. Classes are overcrowded. Pupils have to undertake arduous journeys to reach school. Many quintile 1 and 2 schools do not have libraries, computer labs and, in the worst cases, functioning toilets.

Poor schools are surrounded by poverty and unemployment. Often transport is sub-standard. Exposure to hunger and illness distracts pupils from their academic pursuits. Working-class parents, travelling long distances to and from work, might not have the energy or time to assist pupils with their studying and homework. Pupils attending schools serving poor communities have substantial familial responsibilities that might take them away from academic work.

Teachers in public schools operate in impossible circumstances, working as they do with pupils who are suffering from malaise and are all too aware that their chances of succeeding in life are slim. Against such tremendous odds, public schools struggle to be public in the full sense of the word.

The situation of polarity in South Africa remains largely racialised. Quintiles 1 and 2 public schools are, for the most part, entirely black. Well-off public schools, quintiles 4 and 5, are racially-demographically representative but are generally lower-middle class in character. Expensive public schools and private schools might be more racially diverse, but what is their class character? Seen from a social class perspective, private schools are remarkably homogenous — they are exclusively for the rich. 

White people have been able to maintain their class advantages. The dominance of English in schooling and commerce ensures that many white people can feel entitled and continue to enjoy their mastery of communication. In the educational sphere, white people have been able to use their economic advantages to secure high-quality education for their children. They have turned the two-tiered, class character of the education system to their advantage. Increasingly, the black middle class is adopting what Pierre Bourdieu terms a “distinction strategy” by taking advantage of the rising provision of affordable, private education.

In general terms, as studies such as Changing Class Education And Social Change in Post-Apartheid South Africa (HRSC Press) demonstrate, class cannot be ignored. In a context where, as Linda Chisholm (2004, 2011), asserts “educational development and the emerging system has favoured an expanding, racially mixed middle class” and “the achievements of the post-apartheid government in education are largely obliterated by persistently vast socioeconomic inequalities” radical solutions are needed.

Given the commodification of education, the privileged white population is now able to create a powerful illusion —  that their privilege is earned rather than unearned (as it was under apartheid). White people might be willing to share some of their class advantages with black people, but only with a select few – black families with money. The education landscape remains untransformed, especially where it matters most, in terms of social and economic inequality.

What would socialising education achieve? For one, it would force white people to share their privilege in the area where it matters most — schooling. They would be thrust into a position where it would be impossible to “gate” their privilege and exert a monopoly.  It would mean that the unfair advantages that white people had gained through exclusive education would be exposed and challenged.

Because their ability to reproduce their privilege in the future would be tied to the success of the public sphere, the white community and black middle class would now have to invest in everyone’s education. They would have to play a concrete institutional role in transforming society and invest what is most precious — their children —  in the very real process of social transformation. The white community would no longer be able to use its money power to maintain class and caste advantages on the labour market. The tendency of education to operate as a site of racial and class reproduction would be seriously disrupted.

In practical terms, the school governing bodies would no longer think of ways to increase fees and subtly marginalise poor applicants. Instead, school communities would strategise to make education work for everyone.

In a socialised education system, if white people and the upper classes wanted a better education for their children, they would have to secure such an advantage through a “commoning process” — where the surplus generated by societies and communities is shared through democratic decision-making and social justice imperatives.

Brenden Gray is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg

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