In Ganyesa, a small village outside of Vryburg in the North West, Mme Mashego*, an enthusiastic mother to a grade 6 learner, takes pride in going to her son’s school a week before assessments start to encourage learners to study and try their best at school.
While Mme Mashego did not finish school, she wants her son and his peers to understand the value of education and the opportunities it can unlock for them — opportunities she could not dream of because she did not complete her schooling. Mme Mashego’s son is in a quintile 1 (no-fee) school with fewer resources and a great need for monetary and in-kind support from parents and the community.
The last time Mashego visited the primary school to address the learners, her son overheard the teachers say about her, “What does this domkop know about studying? She didn’t even finish school.”
Her son informed her of this when he got home from school. Mashego vowed not to return to the school except when the principals or teachers called her for a meeting regarding her child or to fetch his report at the end of each term. Mme Mashego went from being a highly engaged parent to being barely involved in the school because of something that two teachers said.
Schools understand parents’ vital role in the education ecosystem. However, they may also act in ways that leave parents feeling alienated and disempowered to play that role.
Mashego’s story is not unique. In our recent nationally representative study, The quality of education in South Africa through the eyes of parents, we found that 10% of parents who participated in the study felt that principals in their children’s schools did not treat all parents fairly.
There are approximately 15 million children in school in South Africa, which means that the parents of about 1.5 million children in this country feel disempowered by school staff and therefore shy away from the critical role of championing their children’s education journey.
This feeling is not unique to schools in low socio-economic areas or parents with lower education levels; between 23% and 30% of parents of children in public fee-paying and private schools also felt intimidated by principals.
On the other side of the country, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, also known as the prestigious school-belt, I faced the daunting task of applying for a school for grade R for my son. In the build-up to the application period, I attended every open day at the schools and in the case where a school did not have an open day, I set up a private school tour because, like Mme Mashego, I believe in the value of education and the opportunities it can unlock for my son.
At one of the schools, I had a meeting with a senior teacher with the aim of the school getting to learn a bit more about my son and me. Upon entering her office, the first thing she stated once she looked at my application form was that I was unmarried, with an undertone of judgment. This statement was followed by a discussion that alluded to the fact that black boys are often harder to teach because they do not have fathers in their homes, and their parents are less involved at school.
Like Mme Mashego and 10% of other parents in South Africa, I felt disempowered by this encounter. The school in question has an excellent reputation among parents in the area as offering quality education. I questioned whether my child would have an outstanding educational experience at this school if the teachers used this lens to view him.
With recognition of my privilege because, unlike Mme Mashego, I have a master’s degree and a deep understanding of the importance of advocating for my child, I could voice my concerns to the headmaster of the school in question. And I could choose a different school for my son.
For the education that schools provide our children to be considered high quality, it must lead to their emotional, social and intellectual growth. Parents need to feel that they can have agency in the schools their children attend by being comfortable enough to advocate for their children’s needs.
When we think about quality education in South Africa, we often talk about the result of the process — matric results. However, as a country, we need to start looking at the process itself, unpacking the contributing factors that parents can contribute towards and holding schools accountable to ensure that their children experience quality education.
Parents need a lens to gauge the process and a language to start engaging with schools about their experiences and perceptions to ensure their children have access to quality education.
This op-ed was first published by Mail & Guardian on 31 August 2023.