/ 18 April 2023

Do we want schools to babysit our children for 12 years or to teach them?

Some schools are in areas characterised by violence, drug abuse and moral degeneration. For its part, the department of basic education has enacted a Guide to Drug Testing in South African Schools and School and Regulations For Safety Measures at Public Schools to ensure that our schools are safer. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

Educators in some state-owned schools are acting more like parents, doing more care work than transferring knowledge. This is happening during a time when the quality of South Africa’s education is rated among the worst in the world. 

The in loco parentis dogma gives the school and teachers some of the rights, responsibilities, duties and authority of parents. The phrase is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “in place of a parent; instead of a parent; charged factitiously, with parents rights, duties and responsibilities. In this regard, the educator assumes a parent’s position and discharges a parent’s duties. 

One of the key duties assumed in the in loco parentis doctrine is the school authorities must always wear the cap of a diligent bonus paterfamilias/ materfamilias. Part of this responsibility is supervision and safety in the school and thus encumbers educators, the school and respective provincial education departments to avoid impending harm and didactical neglect to learners in their care. Educators must consistently scan the school environment to eliminate any foreseeable harm to pupils because failing to do so exposes them to liability. A few cases of negligence that have been brought before the courts and numerous that are dealt with informally at the school level point to harm occurring when learners are out of sight of a supervising adult. 

The school does not exist in a vacuum. It is also affected by social factors in the surroundings in which it resides. Some schools are in areas characterised by violence, drug abuse and moral degeneration. For its part, the department of basic education has enacted a Guide to Drug Testing in South African Schools and School and Regulations For Safety Measures at Public Schools to ensure that our schools are safer. Educators sometimes experience violence when executing their responsibilities. They are often ill-equipped to deal with these problems. Worse, still, when faced with large classes, it is difficult to comprehend how they manage to exercise the duty to care. Expecting educators to act in loco parentis under these environmental circumstances is unfair, especially considering that educators are not trained to handle social ills, but to transfer learning. Because there are no designated social workers or psychologists in public schools, educators are expected to juggle these two giants at once. 

Yes, in some schools such as quintiles four and five, parents are mostly involved in their children’s education. These are fee-paying schools. As a result, school governing bodies (SGBs) can use the funds and hire social workers or psychologists to deal with social ills while educators focus on what they do best, which is learning transfer.

The thespians dilemma

While the department has no legislated norms and standards on learner-educator ratio but post-provisioning, which determine the ideal maximum class size through the number of “weighted learners”, the learner-educator ratio is still not ideal for effective classroom management acquiescent to the discharge of care encased in loco parentis. There are reports of classes exceeding the idyllic ceiling class size of 40 in various public schools. This reflects overcapacity, especially in non-fee-paying-fee quintiles one and two schools. These are mostly in townships and rural areas. Parents fall within low-income brackets and cannot afford to pay school fees. Quintiles one and two schools, especially in townships, require the most support from social workers and psychologists. It is where most violence in schools is experienced, hindering educators from performing in loco parentis duties. 

It is important to underline educators’ social dilemmas to get parental support. The family structure in South Africa, like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, continues to devolve. About  20% of children under the age of 18 do not live with their parents while most children have absent fathers who are not involved in their children’s lives, leaving the burden of raising children to mothers. Economic status and transport poverty mean that some parents leave for work while their children are asleep and arrive home when they are asleep. This, coupled with the Gini coefficient for income inequality of 0.63, places the heaviest burden on teachers who often play a larger role in place of natural parents than in other places. 

While being sympathetic to the predicament of the department because of shifts in geographical demographics (empty schools in one region, brimming in another), internal and external migration and inadequate fiscal allocation to manage the class sizes, the department is still bound to provide basal entitlements in section 28 and 29 (1)(a) of the Constitution while meeting the mandates of both the South Africa Schools Act and the Children’s Act

Is it fair then to ask educators to act in loco parentis to a class of 40 or, worse still, 70 learners? Covid-19 exposed parents to the difficulties educators face daily. Often, parents complained about how tough it was to manage their children to focus on their schoolwork for a few hours. Parents are not equipped with the psychological and pedagogical tools that educators possess but this does not diminish the extent of the responsibilities and multifariousness of managing a large class. 

In loco magister

In loco magister means the primary involvement of parents in their children’s education. The reality in most state-owned schools is that parents and guardians can’t fulfil their responsibilities to the schools for various reasons. They don’t participate in school governing body meetings and parent-educator meetings or immerse themselves in the education and sports activities of their children. Homework is often not done while numerous requests to attend to school concerns are ignored. 

The in loco parentis doctrine does not seek to replace the parent as a primary educator and carer, because it is a parental obligation. The department published guidelines to encourage parental involvement in their children’s education in various gradations of loco magister. Parents have the onus to ensure that their children are disciplined, attend school and participate in all school activities.  Parents are also responsible to ensure that their children are emotionally, psychologically and physically primed for school.

As a nation, we need to ask ourselves what we require from our educators. Do we want them to babysit our children for 12 years of their primary and secondary education or do we want them to extract the best potential from our children? Do we want them to deliver the highest quality education to our learners, one that will be recognised as one of the best globally? If we want the latter, it must be a collaborative effort. Parents and guardians cannot be spectators to educator actors. Parents and guardians must be enmeshed in their children’s education as principal educators.  The collaboration implies that the parent must be in loco magister while the educator remains in loco parentis

Our educators should also be equipped with the requisite skills to manage social ills such as drugs, and general delinquency that slither into the class environment. As much as educators may be equipped, their job is to educate and not to deal with social ills. The department needs to allocate psychologists and social workers to schools. This will solve many educators’ tribulations such as having to leave their teaching responsibilities to act as social workers. 

The learner-educator ratio must be conducive to effective learning. This requires more investment in infrastructure and educators. We do acknowledge that, in some schools, the school governing body creates posts for educators to deal with the overcapacity. But this happens mostly in quintiles four and five. This means school governing bodies are limited in the number of educators they can hire to address the overcapacity.  We commend the department for the subsidy/capex they give the schools to support the learner-educator ratio. But these subsidies are not enough, especially in schools where the learner-educator ratio is 1:70. The department must increase the subsidy percentage to quintiles one and two to afford them a fair advantage. 

Educators must also be adequately remunerated as they are responsible for the skills baseload and ultimately priming the socio-economic sustainability of South Africa. Communities must also be active in ensuring that schools are safe places for our children to realise their potential. After all, it takes a village to raise a child

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.