Churches can make a vital contribution to education by encouraging Christian parents to participate in the current school governing body (SGB) elections, says veteran educationist Dr Johann McFarlane.
“But they must act today”, he says. If they do not move quickly they will miss a unique window of opportunity to play a meaningful role in improving the quality of their children’s education and uplift the overall standard of education in South Africa. Failure to act now could also result in organised groups of parents with “different value systems” grabbing control of governance of their schools.
He says there have been several cases in recent years where Muslim parents have taken advantage of Christian parents’ apathy and taken control of governing bodies in schools that serve communities that are predominantly Christian. They then banned the Bible and Christian prayer from these schools and implemented an Islamic code; and nobody could stop them for the three years until the next SGB elections.
McFarlane, who is the coordinator of the recently established educational task team of Transformation Christian Network (TCN) in Nelson Mandela Bay, says that his team has produced information packs and posters to assist churches in the metro to motivate and equip parents in their congregations to act now. He says these resources can be made available to interested parties anywhere in the country. Requests for resources can be emailed to Debbie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About five million parents throughout South Africa are eligible to vote in the SGB elections which are the third largest public elections in the country, involving some 26 000 state schools. The elections run from March 1 to March 23 and will be monitored by the Independent Electoral Commission.
“It is the first time that the elections are being held simultaneously in all nine provinces. It is democracy playing itself out at grassroots level in what is perhaps the most tangible form, as parent voters will have a direct influence on how schools are managed,” says McFarlane.
According to the two major SGB associations – the National Association of School Governing Bodies (NASGB) and the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) — an estimated 80% of SGBs across the country are considered to be “dysfunctional” . The associations believe that members lack the insight, skills and will to carry out their responsibilities. They say that poor mandatory training by provincial education departments is part of the problem.
Parents not aware of potential to uplift shools
McFarlane believes that many Christian parents who could make a valuable contribution on SGBs, are apathetic about the elections because they do not realise how much potential democratically elected governing bodies have to influence the ethos and quality of education at schools since the passing of the South African Schools Act in 1996. Nor do they realise that elected parents hold the balance of power on SGBs, which are made up of parents, teachers and learners. Some of the roles of SGBs include setting the admission, language and religious policy of the school, adopting the school code of conduct and constitution, managing the school’s property budget and determining school fees in consultation with parents. SGBs also play an important role in appointments of principals and teachers, and may elect to fund additional staff posts.
McFarlane says that parents of children at schools in poor areas often mistakenly disqualify themselves from serving on governing bodies because they believe they do not have the necessary education or skills. In fact SGBs have the power to co-opt members with the necessary financial or other skills. Churches can play a role in uplifting schools by helping to channel missing skills to governing bodies. But the “heart and gut” factor that concerned and committed parents can bring to a SGB is always valuable, irrespective of the parents’ education level. He says mothers in certain townships have already demonstrated their power to make a difference by manning school gates and confronting teachers who arrive late and leave early. “Parents who are not prepared to accept teachers who neglect their duties, or the non-delivery of books can play a powerful role through the SGB system,” he says.
In the next phase the educational task team will work with local churches to develop and present relevant training courses to build the skills and capacity of governing bodies. But the immediate challenge was to get churches to mobilise their parent members to participate in the elections.
He says schools have already sent out circulars about the SGB elections but for various reasons many of these have not reached parents or have been ignored by them.
Information packs and circulars
He says the TCN task group has emailed SGB information packs to NMB churches, explaining the role that parents, SGBs and churches can play in the elections and governing bodies. They have also emailed them colourful posters in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. Churches are being asked to tell parents to contact their children’s schools at once and to request election dates and times. They should also ask parents to identify and support candidates who were committed to serving the schools and learners and not their own selfish interests.
He says that his team paid follow-up visits to churches that responded positively, providing them with printed versions of the resources. One church leader took 48 posters for distribution to churches in his region.
But to date, most churches have not responded at all. He anticipates that most schools will not achieve the quorum of 15% of parents required to vote at the first SGB election date. He warns that schools will then be required to arrange a second election meeting at which a governing body could be elected whether or not a quorum is achieved. This was the situation that opportunists had exploited to hijack governing bodies. The TCN task team will continue to do all in its power to mobilise churches and parents to ensure that they make the most of the elections and prevent unsuitable people from grabbing power.
Commenting on the SGB elections, Democratic Party leader Helen Zille says: Our country’s future depends on our ability to improve the quality of our children’s education. This requires an effective partnership between the education department, principals and teachers, and (crucially) parents and pupils. Each must understand their respective role, and fulfil it. Otherwise quality education for all will remain a pipedream, no matter how much money we pump into education.
“School governing bodies are the nexus of effective partnerships in our schools. In particular the SGB empowers parents to become powerful players in the education of their children. When a school community elects committed, skilled parents to fulfil this role it makes an enormous difference to a school’s ethos and quality – and vice versa. Self-seeking parents who abuse the power of governing bodies for their own ends can inflict severe damage on a school.”
Honorary Azanian People’s Organisation president and former Minister of Science and Technology, Mosibundu Mangena says: “It appears that unless parents in the majority of schools in South Africa get better organised through the school governing body mechanism and therefore put themselves in a better position to interact with both the teachers and the department of education, the mess in our schools is not likely to be resolved.
“Better organised parents would be able to restrain injurious teacher union actions; call to order departmental officials who do not deliver books or release funds to schools in time, or the corrupt ones who fiddle with educational resources. Conducting school governing body elections this March without strengthening them, will see the maladies of our education system continuing unabated.”