Because the admission policy and practices of some schools have been in the media for the exclusionary effects they have on black pupils, the governing bodies of public schools would do well to reflect proactively on whether their admission policies and practices are, in fact, as inclusive, relevant and nondiscriminatory as the law and good practice require them to be.
The nature and scope of the powers given in law to the governing bodies of our public schools are discussed in the comprehensive definitions and case studies included in the Oxford South African Dictionary of School Terminology.
The publication points out that it is well established in our law that governing bodies of public schools have significant powers to determine the admission policies of their respective schools. But these powers are not absolute and must be exercised flexibly, in accordance with the South African Schools Act and any applicable provincial law, and ultimately be in the best interests of all pupils.
The Constitutional Court has confirmed in the Rivonia Primary School case that the powers of governing bodies to determine their respective school’s admission policies must “be understood within the broader constitutional scheme to make education progressively available and accessible to everyone, taking into consideration what is fair, practicable and enhances historical redress”.
When well-resourced and well-functioning public schools give admissions preference to, for instance, children of past pupils, children who live in wealthier suburbs and those whose parents are able to pay school fees, they prevent their schools from becoming inclusive, transformative and diverse spaces and instead ensure that access to quality education is, over a lengthy period, reserved for the privileged few.
The same effects occur when these schools attempt to exclude children from disadvantaged areas on the basis that they may feel “isolated and excluded” by attending a public school away from the areas where they live or that they don’t have the home support necessary to excel at or participate in the activities offered by a well-functioning public school.
In turn, these policies and practices ultimately prevent quality education from becoming progressively available and accessible to every child and they certainly do not enhance historical redress.
It is inevitable that the public focus will be on the exclusionary and discriminatory effects of these policies and practices in a situation that is exacerbated by an insufficient number of well-functioning public schools in disadvantaged areas. Under these circumstances, the encouraging of governing bodies of well-resourced and well-functioning public schools to expand within reason the capacity of those schools to allow more children to gain access to quality education is also understandable.
Given that privilege and disadvantage have a colour in our society, it is not surprising that the exclusionary admission policies and practices of certain public schools are considered discriminatory on the basis of race.
If we are to reverse the reality that learners’ socioeconomic status far too often determines the quality of the education they are likely to receive, we need the governing bodies of our public schools to push proactively push for the regular review of their school policies (including their language and admissions policies) instead of waiting for something to go wrong before these reviews are conducted.
We need these policy reviews to be informed by the views of school staff, pupils and parents and we need them to ensure that the admissions policies and practices of all our public schools are as inclusive as possible.
Policies are living documents that need to evolve with the changing needs of pupils, school staff, parents and the broader school community. When developed and reviewed proactively, regularly and creatively in proper consultation with all relevant stakeholders, these policies will not only be relevant and responsive to the needs of our schools but can also become powerful tools with which to build inclusive, transformative and diverse learning environments.