Tracking for life

5 January 2014

Looking back on this blog (originally maintained on my home server – leftside – a server that sadly died in a hard disk failure years ago) I see I’ve got almost a decade of posts up here. Its sobering looking back on what I wrote about. I’m inspired to post again today because of two things: firstly, since late last year I’ve been feeling increasingly frustrated about my “place in the universe”, about the way my time is spent, going to work, looking after kids, keeping a house together. Secondly, a little thing Rebecca wrote this morning about complicity. As Greg Knill said years ago (when I was still in Earthlife Africa, the second of my many political homes), we live in enemy territory. Beyond that, however, I’m horribly complicity in the system of domination (capitalist, imperalialist, white supremacist, heterosexist patriarchy). I go to work and do my job with little reflection on its utility, meanwhile my kids go to a school (a moderately good formely white school down the road from our house) and come home to be tended by a domestic worker. The “politics” of my life are tracked – some things are relatively easy: career advancementareas , getting the job done. Some things are incredibly hard: living in solidarity with other people around me, helping to build organisations that challenge the system.

The tracking I’m thinking about today is not just that tracking, however, its the tracking that seems to grasp and direct kids from birth in South Africa. In particular, the tracking of kids into different school “streams”. Over at Andries du Toit’s blog you can see a Lorentz curve showing South Africa’s growing inequality. This is reflected everywhere, from salaries to healthcare options to, of course, schooling. In South Africa schools are funded in part by the state, but to a much greater extent by parents’ school fee contributions. So the particular pot of wealth that a school has access to is “ringfenced” to serve that school, and there is a relatively small degree of cross-subsidisation between wealthy and poor in the education sector. The schools are allowed to set their own “catchment area”, and they then do that to target the wealthiest group of parents they can find – so e.g. the school where my kids go defines its area as “St James, Muizenberg, Lakeside and Marina da Gama”, all historically white “Group Areas”. Notably absent from that list is Vrygrond (aka Capricorn), where my domestic worker and a bunch of my friends stay. Over the years I’ve tried to get my friends (and my domestic worker’s) kids into the Muizenberg school, only to be turned down at every turn. Instead, even when school fees can be afforded (each state school gets to set its own fees), the options available to a township kid are schools that have more kids per teacher and fewer facilities than the schools a suburban kid can access.

Of course, many of the middle class parents I know send their kids to private schools (an option being punted by the pro-capitalists pundits in SA), often of the “alternative school” type (e.g. Waldorf). Those, I think, segregate strictly by income – their fees are a lot higher than what we pay for state schooling – but the state system segregates by area. And area, as Adrian Frith shows, still strongly correlates with race in Cape Town. Black kids are excluded from schools in suburbs by this “catchment area” system, and trying to work against that has shown, again, the limitations of my personal power and the extent that the system works to define what things are “easy” and what things are “difficult” (and the “easy” things are, by and large, the ones that reproduce the system). Of course, school administrators look at this, and the situation they are facing (effectively each school is an economic island, run like a non-profit business) and they enforce this tracking to make their schools “efficient”, “manageable” etc (with poverty often comes an education deficiency – also because tracking starts way before formal schooling, in the early childhood development options available to different kids, but with poverty also comes social problems – a huge chunk of kids at Capricorn Primary in Vrygrond are seeing a social worker, for instance).

On the other side of the coin, as Edie grows up, high school options need to be considered. Bergvliet High, a good few km from our home, looms as an option. Its got a much better reputation than the high school in Muizenberg. Thing is, we’re considering this option, with apparently a reasonable chance of getting a place, whereas my friends’ attemps to do the same move between Vrygrond and Muizenberg has always ended in failure. What? Seems that the “catchment area” doesn’t apply if you’re middle class? I know this as well because there are loads of “middle class” kids from outside the Muizenberg area (Strandfontein for instance) that go to the school in Muizenberg. And lots of white parents I know in Muizenberg, when not opting for private schools, sent their kids to places like Bay (in Kalk Bay) and Kirstenhof Primary.

There are people working to change the system (like Equal Education and the “Progressive Principals’ Association”), but by and large their work hasn’t inspired much of a discussion about the structure of education in the country. Too often things are dominated by complaints about teachers (and SADTU) and, if anything, a focus on the very extreme problems (such as mud schools and textbooks that don’t arrive). And “middle class” people like myself that do want to be part of a society based on solidarity, are left trying to make an individual difference, and failing. So I guess thus this blog – I’d love to hear other people’s experiences of their struggles with schools. And even if I don’t hear anything, hey, maybe 10 years from now I can look back on this musing and at least use it to index where I was in 2014.


9 Responses to “Tracking for life”

  1. Mandy Says:

    Hey Pete, I hear you – it’s hectic especially when you have a child with special needs. Innitially I was very clear I was going to send Reilly to a state school – would be model C – but state school none the less. In Jo’burg he went to a really nice school – Saxonwold Primary – pretty much like Muizenberg but there were a lot of kids who came from Soweto and Alex and the teachers were really progressive. Before we moved to CT Reilly had an assessment done and was diagnosed ADHD and we were told he had to be in a school with a class of 25 or less. As you know this does not happen in any public schools here. That and the fact I hate schools in general, we sent him to a Waldorf school. In terms of diversity probably the best but also the cheapest. He got a new young teacher who did not help him, neither did the waldorf approach to learning or his undiagnosed borderline dyslexia and as a result he is reading at grade 2 level in grade 4. He has been in remedial classes costing even more and we have now had to move him to a remedial school – with astronomical fees because he wants to be a scientist and I want him to have that chance.
    That’s my sob story, but it pales in comparison to mothers and thier children who are not middle class – who are unable to get acces to decent standard education let alone support when their children have special needs.
    I agree that it is an issue of class and of course in this country class generally means race. This is the fundamental issue but there are other underlying things within the education system including teachers social standing, our respect for the work they do and their respect for themselves. The states support (not) for both teachers and learners etc… It’s a culture that seems to be seeping into the fabric of society, a culture that has no regard for those without money and or those without agency or a voice and it is sickening…

  2. pvanheus Says:

    Hey Mands

    Like you say “small class size” is something only available in private schools in South Africa. And in Cape Town these tend to be Waldorf schools, for some reason I cannot discern. Travelling around on the West Rand on holiday, I saw many more adverts for what looked like “conventional” private schools (in Cape Town those seem to only exist in the form of Bishops and their excessively expensive kin) with a few associated with the JSE-listed Curro Holdings (see Thing is, the existence of these business-run schools – and the measures taken by the “former Model C” schools – suggests, perversely enough, the acknowledgement that parents will work hard to find the best school they can for their kids (and if possible, for kids in their broader “network”). This is an excellent example of “capital as enclosure” (something I actually wrote about on this blog, almost 7 years ago) – and how this works, in part, is by “massaging” the choices that appear before us.

    Anyway, I’m going to try and get in touch with Riyaadh Najaar of the Progressive Principals’ Association (which seems to involve some people with links to the old Teacher’s League and Non-European Unity Movement), to find out more about what they are up to – I know they’re structuring themselves as a “professional body” of course, but it can’t hurt to find out.

  3. Bryan Says:

    Hi Pete, Yes it is the same here in KZN, but Mandy we are lucky in that there was a state short term remedial school for our son who is going back to mainstream this year for grade 4. His ADD was picked up in Grade R so we went straight there and on is also able to claim back the costs of remedial school on tax Mandy so even though we paid more at the school than a mainstream middle class primary school we were able to get most of it back. This cost also included all therapy and OT that was needed in the three years. There was one family who relocated to Durban so that their child could attend. The school also did assessments for other non-fee paying schools and some assistance for special needs children. We now waiting to meet the challenge of grade 4 with 20+ in a class after 13 during the foundation phase.

    • pvanheus Says:

      Interesting Bryan! Its increasingly looking like what I saw in the UK, where people relocate in order to get their kids into particular schools! I get the sense that’s happening in Cape Town too by the way – and so geography is destiny, and given the “tight” housing market in Cape Town the costs of moving to the suburbs in order to access schools are immense! Still, the “catchment area” thing seems to be applied selectively…

    • Mandy Says:

      Thanks Brian! Good to know about the tax too! Still worry about kids and parents in poorer areas, even just understanding what the issue is can be hard.

  4. No Says:

    Hi Pete

    There’s a some research being done by a Mark Hunter on what he calls ‘Circuits of Schooling’. He basically does a geographic analysis of how children move from area to area to access schooling. Basically you have a unidirectional flow from Black areas/poor areas into lighter skinned areas/ more affluence.

    The geographic entrapment caused by race/income/class is a deep problem for education.

    One way to break it, is to break the apartheid geography by pushing for schools of excellence in Black areas. This was an idea proposed by a colleague of mine at Rhodes.

    Unfortunately, because our biggest trade union SADTU (they are a big problem, and it annoys me that they call our criticism ‘union bashing’) stands in the way of us making state schools areas of excellence. Instead, these would have to be private initiatives.

    Parents follow good teaching and good outcomes. Resources are a correlative factor in education excellence, not a causal factor. You can have educational excellence with poor resourcing if the teacher is good – our parents are testimony of this.

    But poor resourcing in dysfunctional communities where there is political shifts after apartheid means that teaching itself is under strain. (This is my ‘you cant blame the teachers’ qualification).

    So this means also putting aside the issue that we cant go the private route. We need more power in the people’s hands, and yes this does mean finding private models that work for us. In Mpumalanga, this is what is happening and I will be sending my niece to a Black private school that is for lower middle income.

    But the broader structure requires that we break the logic of the apartheid geography that you have identified.

    • pvanheus Says:

      Thanks for the Hunter reference (the paper is online at

      What seems clear from the discussion thus far is that the picture is quite different in different provinces, both for the range of private as well as state schools that are available. So, like I said earlier, it seems that this “Progressive Principals’ Association” has some roots in earlier traditions amongst “Coloured” teachers in Cape Town, and its aim seems to be aligned with “areas of excellence” in the state schooling system. During the Apartheid years schools such as Livingstone High School were sites of intense struggle but also of investment by the “Coloured middle class” – clearly this is a model some are trying to emulate, and if I find out more I’ll write about it. The problems, as you know, are immense: at Crestway High School (one of the places that has fought really hard to keep things together over the years) one of the teachers was left traumatised last year after a kid went at her hair with a cigarette lighter.

      I’m really worried, however, that in 20 years time the education landscape looks like the healthcare one: on the one hand an increasingly powerful set of private providers, on the other hand a dysfunctional state sphere providing “basic services”. (Oh another similarity between schools and medical: my kids’ school has been upping fees by about 10% per year since Edie started there, a rate of increase way above inflation and rather similar to the average 9% per year increase in medical aid costs)

      In all of this, where is redistribution? Where is redress for injustice? And where is collective action? I know the “Left” is left spouting platitudes, by and large, but, getting back to the point I made in my original post, where, in this “every life”, does resistance to this rotten system fit?

  5. Why what’s up with your body? For a 50 year old man you look pretty good!ud83dude09 Click

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