Fortress of Suburbia: selective use of school ‘catchment areas’ perpetuates race and class stratification in public schools.

This is an article I penned for a local online e-zine whose editors still haven’t gotten back to me (which is just poor form). So here it is. Many thanks to Ashley Visagie for the idea and for reviewing it.

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Protests in the last 24 months have highlighted the multiple, repetitive alienating experiences for Black learners in prestigious education institutions, both at tertiary and secondary level.

The silence in the conversation is about the learners who never even reach those institutions in the first place, who form the vast majority of the population. But primary and secondary schools are, for the most part, still racially stratified 22 years after the official fall of apartheid.

One of the major mechanisms through which ex-Model C (less euphemistically “ex-whites only”) schools located in formerly white suburbs have been able to select students, utilizes the way in which the South African Schools Act (SASA) interacts with the apartheid geography which still characterizes our urban spaces.

Mark Hunter has done some extremely interesting work looking at student movements in schooling circuits in the Durban area. He found that the opening up of schools to any applicant post 1994 (and subsequent competition between schools to attract and retain the easiest-to-teach i.e. middle class students) has come to create a school market-place.

The push is predictably “upwards”: schools in rural and township areas struggle to keep enrolment up, while “fortified” schools located in the suburbs command applications sometimes up to ten times in excess of the number they can accept. Former HoA (“Model C” or white schools) are considered the pinnacle of education. With a few exceptions, the apartheid hierarchy remains intact: Former HoA trumps former HoD, beats former HoR which all are considered more desirable than ex-DET schools.

This drive is completely rational on the part of parents. They want for their children what they perceive to be the best education available. In many cases, the fees charged by these schools is enough to exclude poor families. Even though SASA makes it very clear a student may not be excluded from school on the basis of their parents being unable to pay fees, this clause is premised on the student being INCLUDED in the first place. The rub comes in how over-subscribed schools process applications.

Schools are not legally permitted to set entrance tests, so they use other proxies. In the case of high schools, the applicant’s report card from primary school (combined with the name of the primary school as an indicator of the reliability of the report card) is used as a proxy for an entrance exam. Some schools issue ‘streaming/setting’ tests for Grade 8s under the auspices of internally arranging students by ability, but these results are also used as a basis for admissions.

Perversely, the ‘best’ schools cream the easiest to teach students, while the most under-resourced schools must work with the students who need the most support and additional resources to supplement that which their homes cannot provide for them.

Another way that prestigious schools justify their intake is to selectively invoke clauses 33 and 34 in the Admissions Policy for Ordinary Public Schools that allows for ‘zoning’. That is: schools may exclude applicants who live outside their ‘catchment area’. For obvious reasons, this interacts with apartheid racial geography of suburbs to ensure that schools located in middle class spaces can legally justify excluding students from poorer suburbs and townships.

Where does the racism come in?

Those former model-C schools who opened their doors to Black and working class learners in the 1990s experienced a phenomenon referred to as “white flight”: middle class white parents withdrew their children from schools that were becoming “too black”, seeing racial diversity as indicative of dropping standards.

In the schools where this has happened, school management is put in an additional double-bind: their physical location is remote from their student base, and their parent bodies are bearing the “invisible school fees” of excessive transport costs, while their children travel sometimes in excess of 100km a day roundtrip to get to school, a time commitment that seriously interferes with rhythms and habits of learning.

These schools are also often allocated the wrong quintile denomination, which has significant implications for funding. Provincial Education Departments designate a school’s quintile based on the school’s location, not on the residential addresses of the learners who attend that school. Such schools could not invoke zoning to filter out working class children: white flight has ensured that the proximal middle class families with whom they share a physical suburb no longer trust the value of the education delivered there.

But for the vast majority of schools located in formerly whites-only suburbs, the use of zones to filter out working class—which means mostly Black—applicants is a convenient method of ensuring only ‘desirable’ applicants. Given how untransformed the majority of South African suburbs are, this clause is excellent example of structural racism.

The real power of this selective invocation of zoning is its plausible deniability. MECs can publicly state that the use of ‘zones’ is ‘not encouraged’, yet tacitly continue to allow schools the freedom to invoke zoning at a whim, when the application pool starts to look a little too poor or too brown.

Even in the rare event that school management themselves were willing to diversify their student population, the threat of middle-class families abandoning the school is very real: schools are held to ransom by discriminatory parents, and School Governing Bodies perpetuate exclusive admissions policies for fear of losing their fee-paying parent base and falling into the quintile funding gap of serving working class students in a middle class area.

But for the most part, middle class schools are quite happy to continue using the combination of fees and zones to take their pick of easy-to-school applicants, who walk, talk, dress and learn the ‘right way’, and they are willing to go all the way to the Constitutional Court to defend their right to do so (see FEDSAS v. Gauteng MEC and HOD Concourt judgment handed down in May 2016). The real travesty is that the existing national education legislation enables them. Hopefully the GDE victory in the ConCourt will start to set the correct precedent, but there is much ground to cover before the ‘best’ schools are truly accessible to all.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of poor and black learners will never even get the chance to protest such schools’ codes of conduct, hair regulations or teachers’ behaviour. They never get a foot in the door. The irony is that while schools are allegedly marketized to encourage competition and in so doing, ‘drive up quality’, the school ‘market’ is still anything but free.

Author: Sara

I'm a mathematics teacher currently working in the area of teacher development at the University of Cape Town. I've an interest in language in education, education policy and sociology and general ideas around equity and adequacy in public primary and secondary schooling in South Africa and other developing contexts. I'm currently doing my PhD at UCT. When not thinking, reading and writing about education issues, or working with teachers, I can normally be found either somewhere on the slopes of Table Mountain with my dog, or behind a piano.

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