‘Social justice starts at school’ – Prof. Yusuf Sayed (2016), Centre for International Teacher Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

In the US, the schooling system has for a long time been intended to be the ‘great equaliser’ by bringing together children from all types of backgrounds and treating them the same while also ensuring they interact with one another on an equal footing. This aspiration has, however, not been met due to socioeconomic factors which prove to be too powerful for the school system to overcome (Erickson, 2015). This is likely the case worldwide, including in South Africa where schools must address social justice because they are a key site where the youth are socialised and learn a great deal about how to behave and interact with others. Nevertheless, race, class, wealth, and family and social ties greatly affect one’s education prospects and the reality of justice in society.

South African schools are either public or private, and the former are usually for lower-income groups and the latter for higher-income groups. Private schools offer scholarships to underprivileged bright children, but this does not equalise the situation as these children are a minority. Their exposure in the private school system can also cause problems and divide them from their home context, including from siblings and other family members and friends who don’t receive the same opportunity. Furthermore, children going to poorer performing public schools face rifts between them and other children attending better public schools, especially previously whites-only schools.

School governing bodies ‘captured to serve the self-interest of wealthy parents’

Among the critical success factors in making school a place for fostering social justice is education staff and parents’ actions as individuals. There are personal agendas and beliefs about how things should be done which greatly affect the situation. Parents who are well off and those who make the effort to involve themselves as much as possible in the overall running of the school and of the classrooms have considerable sway. Prof. Yusuf Sayed (2016) describes this as follows: ‘school governing bodies [SGBs] should be key spaces for democratic participation. But some of these bodies are captured to serve the self-interest of wealthy parents.’ Sayed says that they act with impunity and that class divisions in relation to this are as much a problem as racism in South African schools.

SGBs have been relatively independent since the end of Apartheid. The ANC government decided to decentralise control of schools so that previously excessive state authority (characterised by censorship and segregation) would be curbed, and communities would be more involved in school administration. For this reason, the major portion of the school system is termed ‘public education’ (and not ‘state education’), while the remaining smaller portion of schools are private. More recently, the government has been making moves to regain control over schools, partly because they have noticed the problem of SGBs being taken over and used to advantage the few, although there are serious concerns over how successful increased state control will be (Mabuza, 2017). The government has also encouraged more parents and pupils to be active in the SGB to ensure they are ‘spaces for democratic participation’ (Sayed, 2016).

Is private education always better than public education?

Those in private schools are mostly from better-off families, and there is money for extra classes for students who are struggling, and indeed even for those who aren’t, so that their marks are higher overall than for public school children. Private schools have better equipment, make use of technologies which benefit education, and they offer higher salaries which attract the best teachers and other school staff. There is also money, coaches, educators and time available for all types of extramural activities including sports, culture and music, and skills building such as photography and advanced computer classes. Wealthy parents are able to send their children for training and childcare outside school. For example, a private swimming coach or au pair who transports and helps children them with homework.

The opposite situation is often found in public schools where parents often do not have funds for additional activities and extra classes. Single and/or working parents may only be able to afford the basic school fees. Children are not kept as busy and do not have the advantages of extra lessons, skills building, or being ferried around by an au pair or parent who does not work to various activities. One advantage of public schooling, however, is that it places the responsibility to succeed to a greater degree on the individual child. This may seem unfair, but it is effective in building the characteristics of resilience and determination in the face of adversity.

In some cases, public school children have no teacher for certain subjects because the school cannot attract and pay enough staff, or the teachers are not well trained or even interested in their job. Some children, however, don’t resign themselves to the situation. They may get hold of whatever materials and textbooks they can and work individually or in groups to go through the syllabus as best they can, and they manage to pass, sometimes doing very well despite having no teacher. What must be noted is that resilience among poor children needs to be accompanied by some kind of support such as encouragement and basic resources (Williams et al., 2016).  Resilience is highly valuable, but alone it is not enough.

In private schools, children have many of their problems solved for them by well-paid teachers, parents with free time, and au pairs. Forgot your homework? Don’t worry the au pair is on call to bring it in for you. The au pair also helped you put together great answers or gave you all the answers to the homework questions. Want to learn about drones? You get handed your own drone to play with, and you can read up about how to use it online on your PC or tablet as much as you like. Some schools are already offering drone training overseas, and the technology is set to become an increasingly useful and lucrative industry of its own (Nix, 2017). These may seem like great advantages. Having a drone to play with means that you will find it easier to work in drone technology or a related field. But it can teach some children that they don’t have to make an effort to get what they want or take responsibility for their own schoolwork. They are used to being everyone’s priority number one. On the other hand, children from poor backgrounds may have time-consuming chores to do such as fetching water, and not enough time to build such skills, even if they do have access to some technology.

To be fair, it must be noted that there are roleplayers in the private sector who have seen the problem and are making efforts to ensure students don’t leave private school without learning key coping skills and self-sufficiency. Some wealthy parents are afraid of their children developing ‘affluenza’, which encompasses the problems associated with being rich and spoilt in today’s world, including an ‘inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions’ (Rost, 2016). Children being ‘spoilt’ is a serious problem for society, and it should be seen as an accurate rather than affectionate term. Think of food which is spoilt. There often isn’t much that can be done with it, and it will probably cause illness if consumed. Yet, spoiling is not something children do to themselves and can’t really be blamed on children.

Privately schooled people, as adults, also have access to more resources and are more socially mobile, but how they use these benefits will not necessarily be for anyone’s good in the long-term, including their own. The inherited family business which goes under when in the hands of subsequent generations is a typical example of this problem (Xue, 2016). Private school children are sometimes difficult to deal with as adults in the working world as they have expectations about how they should be treated and what should be done for them. In higher education, they can struggle because lecturers have completely different methods to private school teachers. If a student doesn’t perform, no one blames the university staff. What you achieve is almost entirely up to you in higher education. Universities are vastly different from private schools; they are more like public schools, giving public school students who are used to self-reliance an advantage (Preston, 2014).

Situations of socioeconomic variety in schooling

We also need to consider that public/poor vs private/wealthy is not the whole picture. Two other situations are discussed here, though there is also homeschooling and other education situations. The first situation is the child who receives a scholarship to go to an expensive school where they are the only ‘poor’ pupil or one of very few. This can be an opportunity to get a better quality education, but it has drawbacks. These children find themselves increasingly divided from their home situation and community, and it creates anxiety, dissatisfaction, jealousy, and even loathing of one’s situation. Megan Kenny (2017) describes her private school experience: ‘Unfortunately that opportunity for social mobility came at the price of a newly internalised shame about being poor, and an accompanying sense of isolation.’ She notes that the fear parents have that ‘their kids will miss out… causes otherwise progressive people to support institutions that are pivotal to the maintenance of structural inequality within society,’ and private schools subtly play on those fears. With the motto ‘diversity opens minds’ the school Kenny attended suggests that it has a diverse environment, but she says this was not true in social or cultural terms, only in teaching methods. She says that this is a specific kind of ‘diversity’ available only to the rich, which is not genuine diversity. Notably, Kenny (2017) describes how she succumbed to socioeconomic pressure and resorted to stealing so that she could dress like her peers and fit in. This also indicates that her school situation did not really encourage diversity.

Other troubling school mottos include ‘quality education by any means necessary’. ‘Any means necessary’ could end up being very high-priced and exclusive education in small classes. Though subtle, ‘success, nothing less’ indicates the wrong type of attitude because we also learn when we make mistakes. How the adults who form the school’s staff define ‘success’ and the type of achievement they push for are not necessarily good for pupils in the long-term. Kenny (2017) concludes that ‘Private schools not only reinforce class divisions, but inhibit the cultivation of empathetic and well rounded human beings from all kinds of backgrounds.’

A different situation is seen in what we can call ‘mixed’ schools, especially previously whites-only public schools where the fees are neither very high nor very low, and where there can be more of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds among the children, which has its advantages for socialisation. However, in these schools, with the extra attention and training children of wealthier parents receive, they are most likely to be selected for sports, academic and cultural activities. Other children may not have transport and/or equipment, so they aren’t selected for activities. Some parents can afford a new full cricket kit and music instruments, and, in the classrooms, their children have all their books and stationery ready on time. Having all the setworks for a literature class is important for language learning, for example. Apparently ‘bright’ and ‘well-behaved’ children in socioeconomically mixed schools will be favoured by teachers and coaches because they come prepared and comply with requirements, which makes the adult’s job easier. Students without resources in mixed schools may be discriminated against, even ‘written off’ by teachers. School staff may disparage or ignore children who are not prepared and equipped, despite it not being their fault.

Some children will also be noticed more by everyone at a public school when their parents drive more expensive cars, make donations, and appear to be doing more for their children. Those with less to spend are seen as failing to prioritise their child’s education. A minority of parents may not prioritise education, and neither do they prioritise their children very much, but this is not the same as being disadvantaged by resource constraints. Yet, in the face of these adversities, some children still succeed because they have enough support. Families can go a long way by being encouraging and resourceful and refusing to allow circumstances to dictate a child’s success at school.

For social justice to be achieved in schooling, we need to break down barriers between students, and more parents and students must be active in shaping education. We cannot have a successful schooling system if it is usurped by wealthy parents and run to meet the desires of adults rather than the needs of the children. Schools need to be child-centred, child-friendly, safe and inclusive places where children can learn and socialise without anxiety over their economic background and favouritism.


Erickson M (2015) Children don’t live in a vacuum: Why US education is not the ‘great equalizer’. The Guardian, 8 September.

Kenny T (2017) I was a poor kid at a wealthy private school. It gave me social mobility, but also a sense of shame. The Guardian, 17 June.

Mabuza E (2017) School governing bodies outraged over plan to strip them of powers. The Times, 23 October.

Nix N (2017) The value of bringing drones to the classroom. The Atlantic, 18 August.

Preston B (2014) State school kids do better at uni. The Conversation, 16 July.

Rost (2016) What is affluenza and are you infected? Rethinking Prosperity, Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, University of Washington. 5 January.

Sayed Y (2016) Social justice starts at school. Mail & Guardian, 16 September.

Williams J, Steen S, Albert T, Dely B, Jacobs B, Nagel C, & Irick A (2016) Academically resilient, low-income students’ perspectives of how school counselors can meet their academic needs. Professional School Counseling, 19(1): 155-165.

Xue J (2016) Is family business good for you? Ten advantages and disadvantages. LinkedIn Pulse, 9 May.