How open are Open Days?
By Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray
It’s open season. It’s that time of year when anxious parents and excited children attend Open Days at the schools that appear on their short-list. Of course, the majority of parents in South Africa don’t have a list or much choice on where their children end up at school. They are left with the school which is closest and, for many, which doesn’t charge school fees. But for those who have some choice, their list has been painstakingly put together based on what they have read in the newspapers, heard from their friends and family and what they see when they encounter children from the schools on their list.
In the video above, Murray, a parent and a principal of a public co-ed school, speaks about what he looks for when choosing a school for his children. Like so many parents, he has a vision of the kind of schooling he wants his children to receive and is plagued by many questions. Is this school best placed to help my child succeed academically? Will it provide her with opportunities to develop her full potential? Will the teachers help him develop the skills and values he needs to succeed in the 21st Century world? Will she find a place where she feels she belongs?
This is a time of angst for all parents who believe that schools have the power to open up doors of opportunity for their children. But what many parents face as they visit schools during open days or browse through the beautifully designed catalogues and school magazines, is the reality that the opportunities the school might offer come at the expense of their child feeling a sense of belonging at the school they choose.
Take these three messages we received this week from parents in the process of choosing schools.
“I went to an Open Day at School Y last Saturday…So shocked to see all the white staff L. Now how on earth does that happen in South Africa…in Durban (the home of the Zulu Kingdom!) I am so torn between my son getting a good education and him getting a multi-cultural upbringing… It truly makes me wonder if transformation is just a myth. Is it only embraced by people who are forced to do? I was under the impression that it was organically happening within the education sector. So puzzled – have I been living in Never Never Land?”
“Just a quick thought on your work A School Where I Belong…are the traditional and private schools using the non-whites as window dressing? We were at a (schools’) Expo last night and most of the schools present had a ‘sprinkling’ of colour in their brochures, which would be the same on their website. My questions are: ‘What are they trying to say and why?”
Finally, in response to these message, a parent who has seen two children through both a former Model C and private school environment commented:
“What is conveyed here is that parents can see through the window dressing and are keen to see genuine change. Secondly, parents are looking for something much more radical than just what is traditionally presented at face value…On the bigger scale, I would argue that such stories need to be told to the Department of Education and of course to policy makers. Schools must be made to confront racism and lack of transparency and transformation.”
These thoughts, comments and conversations are happening in homes, on the side of sports fields and in parking lots from Athlone to Langa, from Lenasia to Morningside. These conversations are becoming louder and more desperate. Very few schools match the criteria that Murray and many parents like those whom we have been in conversation with are looking for.
Arguing from a purely business premise, the intransigence of former Model-C and private schools makes little sense. The growing market of fee-paying parents for the present and future is the black middle class – every reliable population census and market research bears this out. The diminishing market is the white middle class family. And this intransigence extends to many former Coloured and Indian schools whose staff body still represents the racial composition determined by the apartheid state while the learner body is radically different.
On the other hand, arguing from a social justice perspective, how can school leaders not understand the critical role they play in developing social cohesion, especially at a time where our political leaders seem unable (or unwilling) to contribute positively to this important work? Surely a leader, with even rudimentary awareness of South Africa’s precarious social position, should be asking herself how she can contribute to increasing the understanding and navigation of difference and not add to the already tense climate pervading our country?
If you are such a leader who wants to contribute positively to this nation-building project then may we suggest you start with Open Days and these questions:
- Are our Open Days really open to everyone?
- Do all parents and children feel welcome when they enter our school on that day?
- Who meets them at the gate? Who takes them on the tours? Who addresses them from the podium? Who sits on the stage?
- Do all your potential parents and learners see themselves represented in the people you choose to represent the school?
- What assumptions of understanding are you making that is based on a cultural history rather than an educational history?
The team that plans your school’s Open Day has to include parents, learners and staff who represent the diversity of our nation. Maybe your staff doesn’t yet represent the diversity that it should, but there are parents in your community who do and there are learners (present and past) who do. Invite them in. Include them in the planning and running of the day. Seek out difference and deliberately include.
The intent of the Open Day programme should be to deliberately include all South Africans in your planning and execution. If you create a space on Open Days where all South Africans feel welcome, you are well on your way to creating a school where all our children feel like they belong.