The 2017 school year began with tensions between the Gauteng department of education and two high schools in Pretoria, Hoërskool Overkruin and Hoërskool Montana, which had refused to admit English-speaking pupils.
In January, violent scenes played out at Hoërskool Overvaal in Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg, between black and white parents about the school’s decision not to accept 55 English-speaking pupils.
Now the province’s government is hoping its new feeder zone regulations — announced by the Gauteng education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, last month for public comment — will mean these tensions will be a thing of the past.
In an interview with Mail & Guardian this week, the department’s deputy director general, Albert Chanee, said the regulations will ensure that public schools service everyone and are optimally used.
No school will be able to turn away pupils based on the language they speak and children will be able to attend schools in the area where they live, regardless of their race or class.
With the new feeder zone system, preferential rights will be given to pupils to attend the school closest to them, no matter whether they apply first or last, as long as they have applied during the admission period.
If the parents can’t get their children into the closest school because it is full, they will use the application zone process, which allows parents to apply to any other school within a 30km radius of where they live. If the school has space, pupils will be accepted irrespective of where they live.
But when there are more applicants than available spaces, then the preferential right process will be applied.
Preferential rights are also given to the siblings of pupils already at the school and to pupils with a parent who works in the feeder zone.
Before the department published the feeder zone regulations last month, the default feeder zone was a 5km radius. Preference was given to pupils who lived within this zone or whose parents worked in the area.
Chanee said there was resistance from some schools. Fee-charging schools — mostly former model C schools — have argued that some pupils from poorer communities might not be able to afford the school fees.
“They are arguing that they won’t have the revenue to hire extra teachers and all the other things that give them quality [education] and so they argue it from a class point of view to say we don’t want these people because they are from a poor community,” he said.
But, Chanee said, parents who are unable to pay school fees are exempted from doing so and, according to government’s funding policy, the school will be compensated.
“There is no problem with us placing learners wherever we need. Because at the bottom of what we do is to openly utilise state resources. All the property at ex-model C schools is state resources. Even if the SGB [school governing body] builds an extra classroom, that extra classroom is on state property and therefore becomes state property,” he said.
Chanee said some schools have resisted the new regulations on the basis that they want to preserve their language. “And what we are saying is that we will guarantee Afrikaans to continue. But let’s introduce a second language so that we can fully maximise the school and the local children can access a school nearest to them.”
He added that only a few schools were resisting the change and no governing body association had opposed the new regulations.
Paul Colditz, the chief executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, said the problem with most schools in the province is they do not offer quality education and having new feeder zones was not going to solve that.
“This is an artificial way of manipulating the situation without addressing the fundamental problem. And the problem is the difference in the quality of teaching and learning [between schools],” he said.
“So forget the artificial rules and make sure that for every parent the closest school is the best school; that’s the long-term solution. If we had tackled the issue of underperforming schools 10 years ago we wouldn’t have been in the situation where you are artificially trying to manipulate the situation.”
The department has received 25 appeals to the regulations. Chanee said, if no more arrive this week, the department will respond by January. Once that is done the matter will be closed and the applications in April/May next year for 2020 will use the feeder zone system.