EPISODE 01: Parent Activism
episode duration: 7 minutes 30 seconds
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Hello, and welcome to Equal Education Radio, my name is Sinethemba Ndlelini.
From Port Elizabeth to East London, a recent surge in parent-led protests and school shutdowns in the Eastern Cape have led many to question whether these parents are justified.
Is it okay to shut down down schools in the name of better education?
Stop lying to us. Stop lying to us. We’re saying: The department of education are a bunch of liars. Our kids are the future. Enough is enough.
These recent events have also led us at Equal Education to examine exactly what role parents should play in their children’s education.
To learn more, we spoke with Mr Themba Mola, Acting Chief Executive Officer of Kagiso Trust and long-time advocate of parent involvement in schools.
Where a school recognizes this critical role of parents, the quality of learning improves. The safety of children improves. Because then parents become interested in what’s happening in the school.
In other words, education improves when parents get involved. But how?
Part of what we think is the responsibility of parental involvement is really to hold each other accountable. I’m referring to the stakeholders within the schooling system--in this case referring to the Department of Education.
So should parents shut down schools to hold education stakeholders accountable? No, says Mr Mola
Even in that conflict, education should be protected by all costs or by all means. For example we become concerned when during the protests a school is burnt, we become concerned when during a protest children are prevented from going to school.
Mr Mola’s argument that education should be protected at all costs, represents a fundamental ideological debate here: is some education better than no education? And, are the parents better off shutting down schools now in the hopes of securing better education in the future?
Department of Basic Education MEC Angie Motshekga recently spoke out against these shutdowns, which she described as parents using their children to hold the government at ransom.
How then should parents hold an unresponsive department accountable?
Clearly, we needed a second opinion.
To get the legal perspective, we spoke with Solminic Joseph from the Equal Education Law Centre at his office in Cape Town.
I’m Solminic Joseph. I’m an attorney with the Equal Education Law Centre
In addition to a background in education law, Mr Joseph recently got up close and personal with parent activists.
And obviously, this is now a room of about 500-700 parents. You can imagine the type of consternation that was in there. You can imagine the emotions and people were, you know? You could feel the tensions going up and up, and something was gonna give, right?
A few weeks ago, Mr Joseph went to Atlantis to observe and eventually mediate a disagreement between the parents of a primary school and the Department of Education.
So what happened in Atlantis is that parents gave a mandate to the SGB to shut the school down because of what they perceived to be an unsafe environment for their children. So, a couple of weeks ago, about two weeks ago, the SGB did in fact shut the school, locked out the parents, locked out the teachers and the learners, and they weren’t allowed access to the school.
And what was this unsafe environment? Well, where do we begin…
One can surely have appreciation from the position from which these parents came, because there were ceiling boards that were falling. There was concrete shifting in the structure. There were ablution facilities that were unusable. There was an electrical fire due to bad wiring. Drains blocking every day so it causes a health risk. Sewage and grey water runoff and all those types of things. It was a wood structure that was 40 years old. It was dilapidated, and there were holes in it. The railing on the second floor was loose. There’s broken windows. There were safety hazards like on the walkway because that had shifted so the concrete was lifting up so it causes tripping hazards. Like, I don’t know what the hell happened. So the parents were coming from a position of concern. This is a school with 942 learners, or 953 I’m not sure. But it’s over 900. And with the 30 teachers, that’s nigh on 1000 individuals in that school. It was in these conditions essentially waiting for an accident to happen. So that is where they drew the line. They said: to this point and no more.
No more indeed. After closing the school, the department acted swiftly. After several meetings between the parents, SGB, and the department, this drastic action was met with a surprising response.
They closed the school on I think the Wednesday. They got a letter the Thursday to say “you are now on a list to be replaced.” They were on no waiting list. But they went from that to being prioritised on a list for immediate replacement in essentially one day. So that is drastic action that got you immediate and very drastic relief.
But that’s not how it’s supposed to happen.
It should be parents, through the SGB who is responsible for the governance of the school, and the principal, who’s responsible for the professional management of the school. Those two power structures inform the HOD or the MEC that this is what is happening at our school, our school is unsafe, consider closing. It is then for the MEC and the HOD to exercise that discretion and then close the school.
But as many parents, students, teachers, and community members across the country know, the department of education is not always responsive to the needs of learners through regular channels.
So what will be the fate of these parent protests? Were they even legal, and how will this play out?
On that, we’ll give Mr Joseph the last word.
It’s a very difficult question to answer. The lawfulness of it will obviously, it’s never been tested before. In affecting these changes, it takes a while. Unless sometimes parents take drastic action. And what is a worrying trend now, is that parents close down schools and disrupt education for all learners. And only then the department responds. Ultimately whether it is a good thing one can also argue for and against it. It’s mostly a good thing that parents are now taking a proactive role in making sure their kids have access to quality education. But the responsiveness of government will ultimately determine how this entire saga will play out.