South Africans who consider themselves informed, engaged and “woke” must urgently examine how their school choices play a role in sustaining, and actively perpetuating, the inequalities that threaten our world.
Please don’t tell me you care about extreme wealth inequality if you send your children to one of South Africa’s many eye-wateringly expensive private schools.
There. I’ve said it. The thing that’s so often on the verge of tumbling out of my mouth when conversation turns, as it frequently does, to inequality’s most visible impact – gut-wrenching poverty – and how to fix it.
I hold my tongue because many of those I want to say this to are friends who can’t see that their self-perceived “wokeness” on the most pressing economic, social and political challenges of our time is deeply at odds with where they drop their children in the morning. For them, there is no disconnect between enthusiastically supporting #FeesMustFall, volunteering at a charity or linking, with outrage, to the latest StatsSA Poverty Report and paying obscene amounts for a single year of schooling (even before the many, many trimmings that come with upper-end private school education). After all, they only want the best for the children they undoubtedly love. Who wouldn’t?
But what if this best is also the very thing that helps perpetuate the ever-widening gap between rich and poor? In his endorsement of Oxfam’s report, Even It Up: Time To End Extreme Inequality, political and social activist Jay Naidoo describes this chasm as “the greatest threat to world peace, and indeed to the survival of the human species”. In the same report, economist Jeffrey Sachs singles out equal access as one of the primary ways to bring about “economic prosperity that is inclusive and environmentally sustainable.
“(Yet) too much of today’s growth is neither inclusive nor sustainable. The rich get richer while the poor and the planet pays the price. Oxfam spells out how we can and must change course: fairer taxation, ending tax and secrecy havens, equal access of the rich and poor to vital services including health and education.”
But it’s no secret that access is the very thing that private schools deliver so sumptuously – and exclusively – to their communities: access to the best facilities and teachers; access to matric year support no public school can hope to match; near-guaranteed access to top-end tertiary education and, perhaps most important, access to multiple, influential business networks stacked to the rafters with “old boys and girls”, and fellow parents. Bluntly put, there is nothing remotely equal on a playing field that’s rimmed by an impenetrable fence with a gate that will be only opened, for a period of a single year, to those who can pay the entrance fee of many, many times 2015’s mean annual household income of R19,120. And even then, those who have the key but falter on their payments (surely an increasingly common scenario in South Africa’s declining economy?) will swiftly find the gate slammed shut, all that talk about school spirit and loyalty and brothers and sisters for life now a laughably tradable commodity.
The display of this access is at its giddiest when IEB matric results come out, followed swiftly by media campaigns built around press releases touting the multiple As earned by multiple students. The waves of adverts and articles in local newspapers are no exercise in idle boasting, for what better way to make a case for the gargantuan fees bill that will be presented to parents come January than 100% pass rates and a head-spinning number of As? Private schools are expert at maintaining this high achievement plateau through entrance exams that filter out those who are not school smart (which is a whole other beast to intelligence and which few schools are adept at stimulating, but that’s a discussion for another day).
This only serves to solidify an already homogeneous group bound together by economic privilege and pervasive entitlement, no matter what cultural or racial background they come from. Those who do get the green light are supported in making it to the finishing tape in multiple ways, ensuring more As per high-achieving individual than we probably cumulatively achieved in my matric year at Danville Girls High School, more than 30 years ago. In this environment, a raft of seven plus As is the new normal that even the most well-functioning government schools are hard-pressed to match. It’s no wonder private school learners have an abundance of self-belief that sustains them should they make it through the more levelling fields of university, until they can join the clubby and coded replica of their elite school in the working environment.
In an interview on 702 in December 2016 Wits Professor Marissa Rollnick, Chair of Science Education and director of Marang Centre, was asked why private school matric results outstripped those of government schools.
“You’ve got a highly selected group of children, mostly from a certain class, and the accessibility of extra lessons. In fact I would want to know why they didn’t succeed if they didn’t,” she explained, adding that the private schools also have the power to hold back children they feel are not going to be successful (and so negatively impact their pass rate). Such is the academic cosseting at these schools that Rollnick said she would far rather choose, as a university candidate, a learner with a B in Science from a township school, then one from a private one.
“If you look at a whole class of children from a private school you will find almost all of them got As and Bs from very good teaching (and) very good coaching. But, you put both of those into university, you will find that the child who had to work much harder in the township school is one of the really top children ….”
Don’t point to the scholarships and social responsibility projects of South Africa’s most expensive schools as evidence of a different scenario. Or campaigns like St. John’s College’s #wakeuptoyourprivilege (in case this one slipped by you, here’s a reminder, taken off the school’s website: “The class of 2016 made national headlines when they initiated the #wakeuptoyourprivilege campaign, where they brought the conversation about privilege, racism and other forms of discrimination to the classroom. It was frank, robust and certainly a big step towards dismantling, piece by piece, the legacy of apartheid.” Excuse me while I quietly roll my eyes at this monumental piece of spewage.)
When my daughter Hannah matriculated from the National School of the Arts at the end of last year she hadn’t had to be taught about her privilege or the complexities of living in South Africa. After 12 years in the government school system, seven of those at Craighall Primary School, she emerged not only with an excellent academic education but also starkly aware of the privileges engendered by living in a good suburb, with working parents who could afford to own a home and a car and pay for private medical aid.
This had not happened because of a hashtag-driven campaign or visits to under-resourced township or rural schools or because of the presence of worthy but financially disadvantaged scholarship recipients. Through the very fact of attending two government schools in South Africa’s most diverse city – where, being white, she was rightfully in the minority – her school years were filled with classmates from a wide spread of social and economic backgrounds: impoverished, working class, middle class and (yes, on a few occasions) highly privileged.
It wasn’t always easy (sometimes the cultural differences were challenging) but she and her fellow learners had to navigate through this in a way that ultimately stimulated empathy, flexible and creative thinking, curiosity and an acceptance of differences and diversity that came through a daily lived experience over years, as opposed to infrequent excursions into this terrain. Far more than academic success, these are the qualities and values that the world needs if we’re to get out of the mess we are in. It was the same for my oldest daughter Jami, and still is for my son, Zach, who is in Grade 11 at Hyde Park High School, and Emmylou, who is in her last year at Craighall Primary. Both Zach and Emmylou are at schools with learners who are not dropped off in expensive SUVs but instead walk to class (some in the junior primary grades) from Jan Smuts Avenue where they alight from taxis that have picked them up in the day’s earliest hours in Soweto or Alex. These are schools with students who can’t afford the nominal cost of the Grade 7 camp; where the tens of thousands of rand spent by private school learners on those European art history trips is more than an entire year’s income for their family.
I’m deeply aware of how fortunate I am to be able to send my children to government schools that are well-resourced, properly administered, with committed teachers, strong leadership and involved parent bodies. Like every aspect of my middle-class life, my access to these schools arises directly out of my white privilege. I can also afford the fees charged and have never had to apply for the fees exemption discounts that are available to those who qualify and apply in time. I am mindful that all schools – including the ones my children attend – need to do more to undo the legacy of this country’s past, and positively reinforce the current and historical experience of black learners through changes in the curriculum and a more diverse teaching staff. Even in these positive schooling environments, there are multiple issues and challenges to be addressed.
I know that I have a choice that most South Africans don’t – parents and guardians who are locked into sending their children to government schools (in rural areas especially) that are failing dismally in giving their children a proper education. For some of these families, private schooling is an important choice, but hardly any of them will be able to even contemplate the upwards of R100,000-a-year fees charged by the exclusive club of established private schools. A handful of innovators have stepped into this breach, including former FirstRand chair, Sizwe Nxasana, whose Future Nation Schools offer future-focused education at a cost that’s not much more than the upper end of fee-paying government schools. Having interviewed Nxasana, I know his passionate belief in access to education as a game-changer in South Africa is real.
I haven’t visited a Future Nation School or SPARK Schools but I’m positive their car parks won’t be filled with the kind of parents who will battle traffic for an hour to take their children to a private school on the other side of the city when a good government school is just a couple of hundred metres from their home in one of Joburg’s established suburbs. Over more than 20 years of having children at these schools, I’m used to the perplexed looks that follow an enquiry about where my children go to school and my answer of a government school that many of those asking would only contemplate enrolling their domestic helper’s child in. As a member of the middle-class there is an expectation that I will join those registering their children – at a non-refundable fee – at a private school, frequently before they are even born.
I believe that South Africans who consider themselves informed, engaged and “woke” must urgently examine how their school choices play a role in sustaining, and actively perpetuating, the inequalities that threaten our world. The fact is there has scarcely been a more pressing time to rethink and recast all the entrenched systems that hold society in its place. How can we not see that something is terribly wrong with existing paradigms when, as Oxfam reported this year, the eight richest billionaires (all men) control the same wealth between them as the poorest half of the globe’s population? In most countries in the Western world, one of these systems is a top-end privatised education that is only ever going to be exclusionary and elitist, no matter how many #wakeuptoyourprivilege campaigns or scholarships or volunteering or twinning programmes it boasts. Actively withdrawing from this system, and throwing your personal resources and energy into the government school in your neighbourhood, might turn out to be the most radical contribution to real, meaningful and sustainable change you can make.