South Africa - Parents as Partners in Decision Making: The South African Experience


Prior to 1994 the South African education system was organised along racial lines and the practice of parent involvement in decision making at school level differed accordingly. In most schools serving the white community, statutory parent bodies were established which had a wide range of decision making powers. In schools attended by black learners, only a few members of parent bodies could be elected by parents; the majority were government appointees. The lack of accountability of these bodies to the communities they were supposed to serve, allowed them to "... trample over grass-roots opinion" (Hyslop 1989).

Education Provision and School Governing Bodies After 1994

Following the 1994 democratic elections, a non-racial education system based on the principle of equity was instituted. To accommodate this, a national Department of Education and nine provincial departments of education were established. In addition, the rights of parents to be involved in school governance were acknowledged in the South African Schools Act (Republic of South Africa (RSA) 1996a). In accordance with this Act the professional management of public schools is to be undertaken by the principal, while governance is to be vested in its governing body.

Subject to the South African Schools Act (1996a) the membership of governing bodies should comprise elected members, the principal and coopted members. Elected members should comprise parents of learners in the school, educators and other staff members at the school, and learners in the eighth grade or higher in secondary schools. In all cases the number of parents must be in the majority. Of equal importance, given the South African context, is the fact that ‘parent’ is broadly defined and includes a person who is the learner’s guardian, or is legally entitled to custody of the learner, or who has undertaken to fulfil the obligations of a parent or guardian towards the learner’s education (RSA 1996a).

In accordance with the South African Schools Act (RSA 1996a) the School Governing Body (SGB) must, among others, fulfil the following functions:

Although this list does not include the full range of responsibilities of governing bodies, it illustrates sufficiently the pivotal role of the school governing body and the indispensable link it forms between the school and the community it serves. However, in disadvantaged communities, many parents have had no prior experience of school governance and do initially require training. Capacity building programmes for governing bodies are therefore necessary, and the state has determined that these are to be provided out of funds appropriated for this purpose by provincial legislature. Thus, by virtue of the Act as well as the capacity building initiatives, the state hopes to build a framework for the governance of schools characterised by a sharing of power among parents, teachers and the community in a way that will support the core values of democracy (Van Wyk 1998). However, the implementation of these ideals remains a challenge, for crucial to the government’s quest to transform education in South Africa has been the question of how to shape the new from the old. As Pendlebury (1998:333) warns: "Neither policy nor practice is ever written on a clean slate." Another issue of concern for government is that policies are developed and implemented within the context of particular sets of values, pressures and constraints. Because of these factors, much can go amiss between conceptualisation of a policy, its formulation and implementation. With this in mind research was undertaken to determine whether school governing bodies, particularly those in previously disadvantaged communities, are functioning as envisaged by the policy makers.

The Research Methodology

Data was gathered by examining relevant documents, and by interviewing a small sample of parents, teachers and school principals in selected township schools. Documents reviewed include: policy documents of the central government, provincial laws and regulations dealing with school governing bodies, as well as training manuals for governing bodies. Statistics dealing with school resources, and reports dealing with economic and social variables of different communities were also studied. Semi-structured interviews with parents, teachers and principals selected by purposeful sampling techniques explore the perceptions of the role players of parent involvement in decision making at school level. Data was analysed according to the procedures typical of qualitative research.

Factors Influencing the Implementation of School Governing Bodies in South Africa

International research highlights the difficulty of using state policy to change what happens in schools. Mandated change, even when it is positive, often fails because it ignores the culture and context of the schools where change is meant to occur (Motala & Mundadi 1999). This is one of the reasons why the efficient and effective functioning of school governing bodies varies greatly between schools and school districts in South Africa. Factors contributing to this include the following.

  1. The school environment

South African schools still bear testimony to unequal education provision among the different racial groups in the past. The extent of the problem is illustrated in the report of the School Register of Needs Survey (SRNS) (Human Science Research Council1997) which provides a frightening picture of neglect and deprivation in the South African education system. The most striking feature is that of inequality. While privileged and reasonably well-resourced schools exist, the vast majority of children continue to be educated in conditions of extreme neglect. For example, one in four schools in South Africa has no water within walking distance and 11% get their water from dams and rivers. Less than half have electricity (43%), at least 13% of schools have no toilets, and nearly half have pit-latrines. About 2 000 schools buildings are in need of serious repair, while an acute shortage of classrooms exists, with three to four teachers sharing one classroom, in at least three provinces. Clearly, poor physical conditions in many schools have a negative impact on morale and confidence in the school. This often overshadows any initiatives aimed at improving the partnership between the school and the community. One teacher, for example, expressed the opinion that school governing body members should be more concerned with improving the school buildings and thus the conditions under which they were teaching, than with the education that was being provided.

Current estimates suggest that redressing the problems outlined by the SRNS would require an annual 3-4% increase on the existing 37 billion Rand national education budget for a period of about ten years (Motala 1997:5). This is an amount the country can ill afford. It is, therefore, often left to the parent community to contribute funds to address problems in schools. Consequently, many governing bodies, set up explicitly with the aim of improving the quality of education provision, have increasingly been placed in a fund-raising role (Motala & Mungadi 1999). Moreover, the burden of establishing, exempting and retrieving school fees is particularly difficult for governing bodies without the requisite expertise and skills. Most governing bodies require extensive training in financial and administrative management. However, interviews with governing body members show that this has not taken place, and financial management was listed as an area in which they need considerable assistance. When reviewing the training manuals on financial management developed for SGBs I, however, found the content and layout difficult and it is questionable whether the parents whom I had interviewed would have the time or capability of accessing the information.

  1. The school community

Despite South Africa’s wealth relative to its neighbours, the legacy of apartheid continues to be felt. The country has one of the highest income inequalities in the world with large numbers of people living below the poverty date line. For example, the South African education system operates in a society in which 18 million people (about 45,7% of the total population) live in poverty (Hartshorne 1999). Moreover, unemployment in the country continues to stand at a high of 33 percent (Motala & Mungadi 1999). Parent involvement in such communities is often difficult as many parents and caregivers are struggling to survive and have little or no energy left for social obligations. Parents with financial problems whom I interviewed admitted to not attending school meetings as these often revolved around the non-payment of school fees.

Another problem which besets parents in the previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa is the high level of illiteracy with an estimated 37 percent of the population of the country being unable to read or write (Shindler & Bot 1999). This obviously impacts on the role parents are able to play in decision making. It also affects the relationship between the school and its teachers and the community. In interviews with teachers, many expressed the view that illiterate parents with little or no experience of schooling had little to contribute to school governance and the education of their children. As one teacher explained: " seems most of our parents think they are not educated....they thus run away from teachers, and that brings the problem."

  1. Lack of training of governing bodies

Although extensive changes in education have been proposed since 1994, there have been difficulties in providing sufficient government finance to implement the policies. What makes the situation even worse is that broad policy is determined by the national Department of Education, while the provincial departments are responsible for the implementation of policies (Vally & Spreen 1998). Most provincial departments lack the resources to do so. In addition, the economic potential of the various provinces differs considerably. For example, 69,3% of the inhabitants of the Northern Province live in poverty, in contrast with the Western province (17,9%) and Gauteng (21,1%) (Hartshorne 1999). Thus, most provinces cannot afford to provide adequate training for school governing body members. This could frustrate the aim of instituting governing bodies as it is unlikely that governing body members can participate fully in decision making and make informed judgements without adequate training.

Although some provinces have contracted universities and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to develop training manuals and provide workshops for governing body members, most interviewees reported that little or no training has taken place. Consequently many governing bodies are ill prepared for the complexities of their tasks. In this regard, one of the principals interviewed said that although the SGB took decisions, they were not trained to do so and that this diminished the role they should be playing.

The only ‘training’ mentioned during an interview was an information session on the South African Schools Act. However, most members had not received notice of the session which indicated poor organisation or poor communication on the part of the organisers. Although the new Minister of Education has reiterated the need to support governing bodies (Department of Education 1999), no indication has been given as to how this should be done.

  1. The leadership role and style of the school principal

The establishment of democratically elected governing bodies has changed the political structure of schools and the nature of decision making (Squelch 2000). However, in practice, principals are often reluctant to relinquish or even share their power and authority. Moreover, school governing bodies often "delegate authority back to the principal", thus preserving the status quo (Lindle 1996). This appears to be common in many schools situated in previously disadvantaged communities, particularly where the principal has made no attempt to empower the SGB. In this regard teachers interviewed said that SGB members were unsure of their tasks and seldom took the initiative, rather relying on instructions from the principal.

Because leadership plays a pivotal role in nurturing any kind of change the principal, as the key leader in a school, should be able to plan, organise, motivate and direct people towards achieving genuine transformation and school improvement. This is not always the case. Chisholm and Vally (1996) contend that the role of many principals in South Africa corresponds with that of former African education, where the primary purpose was to control. Managerial styles encouraged under the old system were authoritarian, hierarchical and top-down. These are the qualities many principals still demonstrate. Thus, in many cases principals require instruction in new approaches to human resource management, school planning and administration which are more conducive to democratic management and governance.

  1. Lack of partnership between the school and the home

Shield and Knapp (1997) suggest that school improvement is more likely to happen when a collaborative professional culture is developed. In practice, however, teachers and parents have different perceptions of the roles each should be playing. In one school visited school governing bodies saw their task as supporting the principal in his/her quest to improve the education offered to learners in the school. The teachers, on the other hand, were opposed to the presence of SGB members in the school during the school day and interpreted this as ‘witch hunting’ and felt that SGB members are "gunning for some teachers". One teacher added that it was inconceivable that "illiterates" should be telling teachers what to do. A principal agreed adding that involving parents in decision making could lead to problems. He explained that parents get "information from somewhere" which is often incorrect and that they then cause conflict within the school. Likewise, another principal felt that the composition of governing bodies should be changed so that parents are not in the majority. He maintained that teachers as "enlightened professional people who know about children" should not be placed in a position where they can be outvoted by parents. This lack of trust between teachers and parents, was repeated in many interviews and greatly hampers the establishment of a partnership between the home and the school. In this regard Motala and Mungadi (1999) argue that school governance was introduced with insufficient school-level preparation and that, in the opinion of many teachers, this change appeared as a ‘top-down’ state instruction.

  1. Access to information and resources

Governing body members need ready access to knowledgeable and reliable sources. In an environment of intense policy development, school principals and education departments should ensure that relevant information is collected and disseminated so that people are kept up to date with developments and issues and are in a better position to make informed decisions (Squelch 2000). In practice, this does not always happen. Taylor, Diphofa, Waghmarae, Vinjevold and Sedibe (1999) found the distribution rate of policy documents to teaching staff and members of governing bodies is 19%, whereas the distribution rate to schools is 47%. Overall, only one in five documents reached its intended target. In schools I visited, both parents and teachers complained that policy documents and other directives from the department are kept in the principal’s office and as such are not easily available. Moreover, all complained that the documents are very difficult to understand and that the departments of education seldom assist them in the interpretation thereof.

  1. Diverse and inaccessible school communities

The South African Schools Act and its provision for school governing bodies is built on the idea of a ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘community’ school. This, however, is fast disappearing. Parents are exercising their right to choose a school outside their neighbourhood and the phenomenon of migration is widespread throughout the system (Motala, Vally & Modiba 1999). This tendency is not restricted to middle-class parents. Many black working class parents living in ‘townships’ (ghettos) sacrifice much to enrol their children in better-resourced schools. This led to many suburban schools in previously ‘white communities’ admitting children belonging to diverse ethnic groups. Ideally the SGB should include parents from all ethnic groups represented in the school. This does not always happen. Many of these schools are situated far from townships, making parent participation in school governance difficult or impossible (Motala et al 1999). This is, unfortunately often interpreted by the principal and teachers as a lack of interest in the school on the part of these ethnic groups. Moreover, as society becomes more fragmented along lines of class, colour, gender, et cetera, the challenge of including all members of the school community in decision making, becomes even greater.

Concluding Remarks

Samoff (1999) contends that experience with decentralisation in education in Africa has been mixed, often disappointing and that the expected benefits, such as improved administration, increased efficiency, reduced bureaucracy, and enhanced democratic participation and empowerment have proved illusory. However, one can argue that this is not necessarily because new education policies are poor, but rather because cognisance is not always taken of the complexities and uniqueness of individual schools and communities. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that for policy to have a chance of success, sufficient people must be persuaded that it is right, necessary and implementable. Almost any education policy will fail if it does not have the support of two essential constituencies: those who are expected to benefit from it and those who are expected to implement it. This means that both parents and teachers need to be convinced that a partnership between the school and the home will benefit all concerned, particularly the learner.

Dr Noleen Van Wyk

University of South Africa


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