A recent idea suggested in education forums sounds progressive and is met with warm responses from audiences keen to seek redress and pro-poor change in our public education system.
The idea is a simple one: public schools that charge high fees should be legally mandated to accept a minimum number of people who are exempt from paying fees.
The problem with the suggestion is two-fold. First, it fails to notice that the symbolic signalling achieved by such a move actually plays to the advantage of those who are already advantaged. Second, it allows a dominant hegemonic minority to seem more important than they really are. Let’s unpack these two issues more carefully.
The first critique
Although equitable learner distribution of the type suggested seems good, it further shores up such schools’ ability to claim that they are transformed and progressive, ignoring the larger problem of which they are a symptom (not a cause), namely deep inequality. One can also imagine how such schools will use the advantage they already have to select poor but high achieving learners from the applicant pool. If learners can’t bring economic capital, then at least they can bring “cultural capital”. Wealthy schools already do this with scholarships and transformation candidates, who are still — by comparison to the majority of learners who struggle — relatively “easy to teach”. You can be sure that the learners these schools will admit as fee-exempt candidates will not be those who failed thrice in junior school, or have symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome. They will sift out the “shining stars”, and in doing so, remove what few positive peer effects are present in less well-off schools.
The second critique
Our imaginations are fixated with “quality ex-Model C” schools (former white schools), and such schools are held as the ideal against which to measure others. Former white schools from the House of Assembly, Cape Education Department and Transvaal Education Department make up less than 6% of the 25 000 or more public schools listed in the national Education Management Information System. Adding expensive independent schools doesn’t bump the number up much (less than 7%).
Not all those schools are sustaining high exam results of the type seen fit to label such schools as “successful”. The supposedly high-fee charging “quality” schools we valorise so much are probably less than 5% of the whole system. Using the learner to educator ratio as a proxy for how schools hire extra staff (which correlates closely with schools that “produce the goods”), there are about 800 such schools in the country with a ratio of one member of teaching staff for every 25 learners or less.
To appreciate how much we over-imagine their importance, and influence, consider the following back-of-the-envelope numbers. According to the education management information system, these 800 schools have about 590 000 learners enrolled between them. Admitting 10% as fee exempt would amount to less than 60 000 learners across all 13 grades, assuming that they do not already offer fee exemptions, which many do. In reality perhaps we could get an extra 30 000 learners in there — 30 000 learners, compared to the 13 million means 12.37-million would be “left out in the cold”.
That this type of intervention is welcomed with such warmth indicates that we are not thinking big enough or really grappling with the scale of the problem. We are not thinking about the large majority of our schools and what it will take to lift them out of the quagmire, rather focusing on the schools most middle class activists know — the ones they send their children to.
Pam Christie, Dawn Butler and Mark Potterton mentioned this obsession with the wealthy schools in the 2007 Schools that Work report, in which they stated that we mistake the hegemonic majority for the numeric one.
Such a focus is inevitable in a balkanised society where the tiny middle class make the most noise. We fail to notice the scale of the issue in the vast majority of schools when we focus so narrowly on this small minority.
Some may argue, quite beguilingly, that at least an improvement for this small number of learners is something. The superficial appeal of such a reform must not blind us to its nature: it would certainly satisfy an increasingly vocal petit bourgeoisie hungry to sup at the table of plenty, but it would do nothing to question — never mind change — the fundamentally discriminatory logic and design of our education system.
A small aspirant minority would benefit, ignoring the vast majority of those whose chances of a better life remain unchanged. It would entrench inequalities created by the differentiation such institutions sanction in the name of “meritocracy”. The much harder work of dismantling structural exclusion for the many should be our aim.
We must stop having conversations premised on the falsehood that if we effect redress, the redistributed goods in the schooling system will be enough. They will not. Many of the distorted incentives that pull schools into problematic trade-offs about who to admit, and who to exclude, are precisely because the funding to do the work they are tasked with is grossly inadequate (converse to what austerity-minded economists would have us believe). So schools hustle to gain access to private supplementation (through fees) as best they can, sometimes using legitimate means and sometimes blurring the lines.
All other proxies for economic means — race, language, location — would not matter to schools half as much if they knew that they’d be financially viable no matter who they admitted. We need to start having proper conversations about adequacy, asking what is enough to run a school properly — especially for the child burdened by poverty. Anything else is just playing shuffle chairs on the deck of a sinking ship.
Sara Black has worked as a teacher in fee-free schools and taught teachers. She is a founding member of the Thinking Space Radical Scholarship Collective