It’s the system (but not the online one) that is broken for basic education

Since the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) opened its new online admission system for entry into grade 1 and 8 on 11 April 2016, parents, school governing bodies and interested parties have been at pains to point out the flaws in the system. They mostly turned to social media to vent their anger and frustration at a system they say doesn’t work. ZAHEERA JINNAH argues that the problems don’t lie with the online application system, but with schools’ discriminatory admission policies themselves.

Although there have been some concerns from parents who are not computer-literate or don’t have access to the internet, the majority of the venting has been from parents and governing bodies that are reluctant to change. For veiled in the disgruntlement of a collapsed online system is a deep dissatisfaction with public education, the ANC, and life in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet, the online system is one step ahead in transforming the educational sector in South Africa, a sector deeply entrenched in apartheid-era inequities, and post-apartheid inefficiencies.

That the level of anxiety of parents is high is understandable. In a country where 25% of its population is unemployed, getting a decent education is critical to ensuring that students have the skills and preparation at foundational and high school level to enter into and succeed in a highly competitive higher educational sector (which, as we have seen with the #FeesMustFall campaign, poses its own challenges of admission and access). And a decent education remains a privilege.

In an ideal world, all schools would be equal. The standard of infrastructure access to resources, level of qualification of teachers, etc would be similar in Sandton or Soweto, Hillbrow or Houghton. But it is not. And this is why the online system must be followed. Yes, there have been teething problems of epic proportions – parents whose 7-year-old boy was registered at a girls’ school in the Eastern Cape, because it was listed as the closest possible school to their Johannesburg home, for instance. But with a more efficient technological system, these will be ironed out. And once this is in place, an online system in the province will be able to ensure a degree of equity and transparency in school placements. For alongside the frustration of an inept technological system, there have also been smaller but important voices speaking of the systematic marginalisation and exclusion that parents face at wealthier, well-resourced schools. Parents who are routinely told that school closest to their home or work is “full”; as one parent on Twitter claimed that a primary school in the northern suburbs admits only ten new learners in grade 1 because it has a preferential system of access for a local (private) preschool. Or as another parent told a radio call-in show how a principal told her she must “take her problems to the GDE”.

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In a country where a school with immaculate sporting facilities and the choice of six cultural activities is found alongside schools that have no running water or chairs, admission into school is more than just an administrative process. It is a ticket to a better future and, as practices from school governing bodies and principals have been noted, it can be an administrative process that is deeply unequal and systemically discriminatory. Who can forget the 2013 Constitutional Court judgement in which the court ruled that the school governing body of a well-resourced school, Rivonia Primary, be forced to admit a learner, overriding the school’s insistence that it had reached its capacity? It is precisely this level of government oversight that resourced schools, and parents of children at these schools, want to avoid.

Once it’s functioning, the online system will ensure that credible data is available to develop and oversee a more equitable school admission system where parents are not left to arbitrary decisions by principals or unconstitutional processes by school governing bodies. And although the online system is causing chaos for now, it is this entrenched system of inequality and parallel systems of admission contained in schools’ admission policies outside of the Schools Act that must change. Now, if only the Twitter wars would cry out in anger around basic education that remain unequal as this as they have done over GDE online portal’s shortcomings.

Zaheera Jinnah has a doctorate in anthropology and is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society,Wits University. Her interests are in labour and work, migration and social justice. She writes in her personal capacity.