Opinion: Frances Eberhard
Zonnebloem Boys is a primary school in District 6 in Cape Town. In March, along with all South African public schools, it will hold elections to decide who will represent its parents, teachers and learners on the school governing body (SGB). Much is at stake in these elections: SGBs have the potential to ensure that quality education is distributed more equally across our population.
When the new government came into power in 1994, it had the enormous task of extending quality education to all race groups. Arguing that it didn't have the resources to provide education to all, both free of charge and at a high standard, it redesigned schools as a "partnership" between the state and the public. How this partnership works is that some of the state's power and some of its responsibility now sits with the SGB.
The SGB runs the school: it makes and enforces school policy; it can decide on subject choice; it is responsible for the school's finances. This partnership arrangement also means that the SGB is required to "supplement" the resources provided to the school by the state.
At Zonnebloem Boys, R217 has been allocated per student for the 2014/2015 financial year. The reason that Zonnebloem receives so little is that it is classified by the Department of Basic Education as a "quintile five" school.
The quintile system is designed to address apartheid's legacy by giving more money to the schools that need it most. Schools in quintile five are classified as the "least poor" and therefore receive the least funding from the State, while schools in quintile one are classified as the "most poor" and receive the most funding.
In January this year, Minister Angie Motshekga announced that R1 116 is the minimum amount of money that must be spent by the state on a learner in a year in order to provide that learner with a "meaningful" education.
The bottom three quintiles receive this basic amount, and the top two receive less. The assumption of this policy is that schools in wealthier areas can charge school fees to make up for the shortfall.
Since it was adopted, however, the quintile system has been heavily criticised for being a very blunt instrument with which to combat structural inequality. It only takes into account information about the basic infrastructure available to the school (such as whether there are tarred roads and running water) and the wealth of the school's surrounding residential neighborhood.
Because each quintile must have 20% of the schools, nationally, there is little real distinction between "wealthier" and "poor" schools. By way of example: in Cape Town, ex-model C schools in the southern suburbs are allocated the same amount of money from the government as schools in Mitchell's Plein. Both are classified as quintile five schools. Yet, southern suburbs' schools can and do charge in excess of R25 000 per child per year in school fees.
For Zonnebloem Boys, the effect of the policy is that because the school sits close to the city, in a relatively affluent neighborhood, it is classified as in need of the least amount of money from the government. What this policy doesn't take into account, however, is that the vast majority of learners at the school do not live in Woodstock. Rather, they travel from Khayelitsha, Langa and other neighborhoods on the Cape Flats.
Zonnebloem has recently raised its fees from R1 250 per year to R2 000. The school can't charge its parents any more than this.
When one considers what can be done with R25 000 a year as opposed to R2 000 a year, it is easy to see how the quality of learning provided by a school can become largely a factor of what resources are available to a particular school's staff, students and parent-body.
With the rapid gentrification of the Woodstock, Walmer Estate and Zonnebloem Areas, Zonnebloem Boys' neighborhood could well help reduce the deficit between what the state provides and what the school needs.
If we want to make an impact and not perpetuate structural inequality, more South Africans need to see themselves as having a role to play in our schools. You do not need to be a parent at a school to get involved. Our law makes provision for "community members" to serve on an SGB; a community member is really anyone who has an interest in a school, whether it's situated in your neighborhood or not. While community members cannot vote on SGB matters, they can, nevertheless, lend their services and expertise to the school. In this way, you could help bring the skills, networks and energy that schools need in order to supplement what is provided by the state to provide quality education.
• This article first appeared on GroundUp