South African schools are burdened with serious challenges beyond financial constraints and educational resources and which go to the heart of the issues that our nation faces as a democracy 25 years after the end of apartheid: how to work together so that all can flourish.
Over the past few years, issues relating to inclusion and tolerance of difference have challenged private and public schools across South Africa. As instruments of participatory democracy, it is the role of School Governing Bodies (SGBs), to ensure that schools are safe places for all learners to learn and thrive. Per section 16 of the South African Schools Act, the governance of every public school is vested in its governing body. This means that SGBs are responsible for determining all policies of a school, including admissions policy, language policy, code of conduct etc., as well as for financial management and ensuring employment equity. These policies can play a vital role in ensuring that schools are inclusive and tolerant spaces for all learners, staff and parents.
Research shows that an involved community and an effective SGB working with teachers and dynamic principals at schools have better outcomes than those schools who do not – even if the latter have more financial and other resources. A recent book by Brian Levy et al, the Academic Director of UCT’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two South African Provinces, looking deeply at schools in the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape found that strong governance was directly correlated with strengthened education outcomes.
Whilst strengthened education outcomes are extremely important, there is more to learning than the curriculum. Learning environments need to not only teach but also model the values of dignity, equality and freedom in our Constitution. School policies and practices should embody these values. In reality there are already many challenges facing SGBs on the ground. A lack of interest and participation among parents, limited understanding of the roles of SGB members and their responsibilities as well as difficult relationships between school principals and SGBs, which can impact significantly on the culture and learning at a school.
This highlights why it is important that schools understand the role of SGBs in governance broadly, and in promoting inclusion and tolerance in South African schools. In 2018 the Bertha Centre at the UCT Graduate School of Business, established the Schools Inclusive Governance Network (SIGN), in response to the need to support SGBs. SIGN hopes to fill the training gap by providing school communities (learners, teachers, principals and parents) with practical advice and support to advance social inclusion through policies and practices in schools. Training and networking opportunities are provided to SGB members to learn and share experiences. On 8 June SIGN will host a one-day workshop that will focus on how SGBs can lead the way to create inclusive policies and educational spaces, and provide participants with a network of support in this democratic endeavour.
It is hoped that initiatives like this will enable more schools to navigate the challenges of inclusive policy making and embed a culture of appreciation for diversity amongst future South African generations.
Dr Solange Rosa is Associate Faculty/Senior Policy and Strategy Adviser with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB), and an independent consultant with Rosa Burns Ntsekhe Inc.