Parent power key to schools’ performance

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With post-Covid-19 freedom beckoning, there is an opportunity to rebuild South Africa’s education system once and for all. Amplifying parent voices in this year’s school governing body (SGB) elections is fundamental for genuine local democracy to triumph.

A parent is a child’s first educator. Parents teach children to walk and talk, to first eat simple foods and then to feed themselves. Parents model how one navigates the world, for better or for worse.

Usually, the role of parent as educator diminishes once a child starts school, with schools becoming the facilitators of a child’s education. Yet, parents can, and should, have a significant role to play if the South African schooling system is to realise the potential of all children.

As Bongekile Macupe wrote in the Mail & Guardian at the end of February, parental involvement is key to learners being successful in their matric exams. 

This is supported by research from Stellenbosch University, which says that supportive interpersonal interactions from parents — such as appreciating children’s reading or checking homework (not necessarily helping with it) — improved learner achievement even for children attending schools where the education offered is not of great quality.

Although basic education is a right and should be provided by the government, it is only as good as it is demanded, and amplifying the change-agent voices of parents is fundamental to enhancing that demand.

One way of doing this is for parents to stand for election and vote in the SGB elections. SGBs are school structures that represent all sectors of the school community, which includes parents, teachers, non-teaching staff and learners in grades 8 to 12.

SGBs play an important role in developing policies relating to issues such as language, religious instruction, school fees and a code of conduct for learners. 

SGBs are key to strengthening parents’ voices because they give parents access to school decision-making structures. It is here where parents can affect real change.

This year — a year still filled with uncertainty — the national SGB elections kicked off on Monday, 1 March and will continue to Friday, 30 April, giving parents the opportunity to stand for election and vote, paving the way for their voices to be heard. 

It’s important for schools to communicate with parents how they can participate, taking Covid-19 restrictions and risk alert levels into account. Schools can choose from three modes of election — an election meeting, a full-day election and e-election.

With more than 23 000 public schools in South Africa, the importance of the SGB elections can only be appreciated by understanding that these elections are the fourth-largest in the country after the national, provincial and local government elections. On paper, the SGB elections are the most localised demonstration of democracy on a national scale. 

SGBs were established with the intent to bring democratic principles to schools, spreading the power dynamics within school structures to ensure that there is a partnership between public schools and the communities they serve, of which parents are a key constituency.

Worryingly, voter turnout for SGB elections is historically low with many schools not reaching the required quorum, and then rolling over SGB members in their posts.

Furthermore, there are year-on-year reports on the failure of SGBs in ensuring good governance, and eliminating corruption and maladministration of funds in South African schools.

In 2018, Corruption Watch had more than 2 000 reports about corruption in public schools in its database, constituting approximately 10% of its caseload. The organisation pointed out that all parents of public school learners in South Africa have a duty to participate in SGB elections to ensure that people with integrity are elected.

Since SGB elections only take place every three years, it’s vital that parents participate in this year’s elections for real change to happen in schools post-Covid. Parents must demand accountability, as well as the transparent and proper functioning of SGBs, for democracy to be a reality at a local level. It’s only then that South Africa will have a tangible shot at fixing its education system.

In addition to voting, these are the ways you — parents of learners — can champion the interests of learners and communities:

·   Communicate with your fellow parents: Parents, you have the right to ask your child’s school about the SGB elections and what the process is to nominate champion parents, to stand for election and to vote. Then, encourage your fellow parents to take part too. This is a chance for all parents to play their part in making real change happen in their children’s schools.

·   Be SGB ambassadors in your communities: If you are elected to a SGB post, make sure that you understand your role on the board as well as the SGB’s overall role. In essence, you represent your fellow parents’ concerns and wishes, and communicate these to the SGB, thereby strengthening parent voices at your school. These concerns and wishes can then be discussed and included in any policy decisions made by the SGB.

·   Understand the SGB election regulations in your province: All nine provinces in South Africa have different rules for SGB elections. It’s important that you, as a parent, make sure that you understand the rules for your specific province. You can do so by asking your school for guidance and you can ensure that your child’s school is following the correct procedures.

While the 2021 school year looks uncertain but hopeful, it is indisputable that parents can, and must, fulfil a leading role in rebuilding the education system after the pandemic.

It’s thus essential for parents to play their part in the SGB elections 2021 by electing someone or standing for election, so that this local embodiment of democracy is not a missed opportunity for South African schools.

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