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South African Journal of Education

versión On-line ISSN 2076-3433
versión impresa ISSN 0256-0100

S. Afr. j. educ. vol.31 no.1 Pretoria ene. 2011




Improving school governance through participative democracy and the law



Marius H Smit*; Izak J Oosthuizen**




There is an inextricable link between democracy, education and the law. After 15 yearsofconstitutional democracy, the alarming percentage of dysfunctional schools raises questions about the efficacy of the system of local school governance. We report on the findings of quantitative and qualitative research on the democratisation of schools and the education system in North-West Province. Several undemocratic features are attributable to systemic weaknesses of traditional models of democracy as well as the misapplication of democratic and legal principles. The findings of the qualitative study confirmed that parents often misconceive participatory democracy for political democracy and misunderstand the role of the school governing body to be a political forum. Despite the shortcomings, the majority of the respondents agreed that parental participation improves school effectiveness and that the decentralised model of local school governance should continue. Recommendations to effect the inculcation of substantive democratic knowledge, values and attitudes into school governance are based on theory of deliberative democracy and principles of responsiveness, accountability and justification of decisions through rational discourse.

Keywords: accountability; deliberativedemocracy; participation; school governance




Every democratic society faces the challenge of educating succeeding generations of young people for responsible citizenship. The present state of democratisation in South Africa has been likened to a teenager going through a rebellious growth stage of puberty as a result of historic shackles, inappropriate structures, erroneous conceptions of democracy and the sheer misapplication of the law (Wiechers, 2008). Chaskalson (2009) has acknowledged that the constitutional jurisprudence (i.e. case law and legal theory) has not developed a coherent system of democracy and that theories of democracy are not well developed. This is particularly evident in the education system where the whole-school evaluation programme has revealed that approximately 80% of the schools in South Africa are essentially dysfunctional (Taylor, 2006:2).

Our contention in this paper is that the crisis presently experienced in the education system is partly attributable to misconceptions of democracy, misapplications of legal and democratic principles, and systemic weaknesses in traditional models of democracy.



Based on the above problem statement, the purpose of this paper is to analyse and explain some phenomena relating to the process of democratisation from a multidisciplinary (viz. legal, educational and political theory) perspective, with particular reference to undemocratic trends apparent in school governance in the education system.



We applied three research methods to achieve the aims of this research. Firstly, a comprehensive literature review of political theory was conducted to conceptualise key tenets of democracy and to identify undemocratic trends by means of a historic-legal and comparative legal analysis of South African as well as foreign sources of law.

Secondly, advancing from a positivist paradigm, a quantitative study was undertaken to analyse variables, factors and indicators of democratic attitudes and opinions of public school governance. The survey was conducted in four phases. The target populations included the principals and school governing body chairpersons of primary, secondary, combined, special education and farmschools providing public education as well as senior education officials that were responsible for administration of school governance and school management in the 19 school districts1 of the North-West Province. All independent schools were excluded from thepopulation. This demarcation was necessary in order to focus on the aim of the study to research democracy at the meso level of public school education.

Initially 401 questionnaires were distributed by post to randomly selected school principals and school governing body chairpersons in public schools in North-West Province. By virtue of the random method the respondents were representative of the demographic diversity of the province, ranging from rural and farm schools to township and suburban (ex-model C) schools. However, as a result of the relatively poor rate of return (see Table 1), it was decided to switch to convenience sampling methods which comprised the collection of data during two workshops. The first workshop was arranged by the District Office of the Southern Region of the North-West Education Department and was attended predominantly by principals and school governing body chairpersons from township and rural schools.

The second workshop was arranged by the Federation of South African School Governing Bodies (FEDSAS) and was attended predominantly by principals and school governing body chairpersons of suburban (ex Model-C) schools in North-West Province. The final phase of data collection entailed the distribution of questionnaires by hand to all the senior education officials in the Education-Management-Governance-Development departments ("EMGD-Department") of all the Area Project Offices in North-West Province. The samples of school principals and school governing body chairpersons represented a broad socio-economic spectrum of public schools ranging from previously advantaged and disadvantaged urban, suburban and township schools to impoverished rural schools. It was expected that the respondents would be representative of diverse segments and perspectives on the issue of democracy in education. Ultimately, the four phases of sampling resulted in the distribution of 1,282 questionnaires and rendered a total of 456 responses as set out in Table 1.

The adequacy of the response rate was confirmed and the results were analysed with the assistance of the Statistical Consultation Services of the North-West University (Ellis, 2008).

Thirdly, advancing from an interpretivistic paradigma phenomenological qualitative study was undertaken after the quantitative study by conducting eight non-random interviews of purposely selected EMGD-officials of the North-West Department of Education until a level of saturation was achieved (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005:145). This qualitative study was undertaken in order to verify, confirm or refute findings of the quantitative study; determine and describe the participants' conceptualisation and understanding of democracy, establish the participants' views of democracy in education, explore and interpret certain bureaucratic phenomena, practices and trends in the education system of the North-West Province, and to ascertain or explain the underlying reasons and motives for these phenomena. In keeping with the interpretivistic approach, the transcripts of the interviews were analysed by means of open coding, axial coding and selective coding of the data (Merriam, 2008). The open-ended questions posed during the semi-structured interviews aimed to examine the participants' perspectives on phenomena such as conceptualisation of democracy, knowledge of Education Law and democratic principles, bureaucratic practices and reasons for poor parental participation. Cohen et al. (2001:103) explain that in purposive sampling, researchers handpick the cases or participants to be included on the basis of their judgment of their typicality. We purposely selected expert participants from the EMGD-officials most likely to have administration experience, actual knowledge of school governance and the phenomenon of democracy in the education system in the province.

Finally, the findings of the three methods were triangulated, evaluated and synthesised in order to develop a coherent theory of improving school governance by means of deliberative democracy and the law.


Democracy, education and the law

There is an inextricable link between democracy, education and the law. This interrelationship is evident from the Constitution, International Law and education legislation. The following examples catalog this interrelationship:

• The founding provision of the Constitution (§1) confirms that South Africa is a democracy based on the rule of law;

• Several of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, including the rights to education (§29); equality (§9), human dignity (§11); freedom of expression (§16); freedom of association (§18); freedom of religion, belief and opinion (§15); the right to use language and culture of choice (§30); and the right to belong to a cultural, religious and linguistic community have particular significance for education;

• The Convention on Prevention of Discrimination in Education endeavours to respect the diversity of education systems and provides that the establishment or maintenance, for religious or linguistic reasons, of separate education systems which is in keeping with the parent's or legal guardian's education, does not constitute discrimination (§1).

• Article 30 of the Convention provides that in those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language;

• African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (SA, 2000) affirms the democratic values and provides in section 2 that the education of the child must be directed to the preservation and strengthening of positive African morals, traditional values and cultures; the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding tolerance, dialogue, mutual respect and friendship among all peoples ethnic, tribal and religious groups;

• The preamble of the National Education Policy Act (SA, 1996a) provides that legislation should be adopted to facilitate the democratic transformation of the national system of education into one that serves the needs and interests of all the people of South Africa and upholds their fundamental rights;

• The directive principle in section 4(m) of the National Education Policy Act (SA, 1996a) contains the democratic requirement that the national Minister of Education must ensure broad public participation in the development of education by including stakeholders in policymaking and governance in the education system (SA, 1996a);

• Section 4(b) of National Education Policy Act expressly contains the principle that policies should be developed to include the advancement of democracy in the education system;

• The South African Schools Act ('Schools Act') gave formal effect to a participative form of democracy by redistributing power to local school governing bodies with the removal centralised control over certain aspects of educational decision-making and the establishment of co-operativegovernance between education authorities and the school community (Squelch, 1998:101; Oosthuizen et al, 2003:195). In principle these provisions were intended to establish a democratic power sharing and co-operative partnership among the state, parents, and educators (Karlsson, 1998:37);

• In terms of the Schools Act, members of school governing bodies are democratically elected to represent parents, educators, learners and personnel of a school. School governing bodies have the democratic and statutory authority to adopt a constitution (§20); recommend appointment of staff (§20), determine the language policy of a school (§6), take measures to ensure learner discipline at schools (§8, §9), and control of school property and financial resources (§20, §21).

Consequently, it is evident that a number of legal instruments contain provisions that require democratic transformation through education, fundamental rights and the law. However, these legal instruments are silent on the nature, tenets and principles of democracy and do not stipulate the application of any particular model of democracy. This will be discussed in the next section.


Conceptualising democracy

Theories of democracy have evolved over the centuries from the model direct democracy in ancient Athens to the modern representative models of liberal democracy, republicanism, Schumpetarian elitism, participative democracy and deliberative democracy. There are differences between the main democratic theories. As such, no definition can include all the variations to satisfy the proponents of each theory. Briefly, in order not to digress unnecessarily, the main democratic theories are given in Figure 1.



The salient features, values, points of critique and disadvantages of each theory are depicted in Figure 2. In the interest of parsimony, these theories will not be discussed in detail as much scholarly research has been devoted to this topic (Chapman & Dunstan, 1990; Blaug & Schwarzmantel, 2000; Cunningham, 2002; Dewey, 1916, Fishkin & Laslett, 2003; Habermas, 1996; Held, 1987; Kotze, 2004; Kymlicka, 2002; Pateman, 1970; Popper, 1971; Schumpeter, 1943; Steyn, Du Plessis & De Klerk, 1999; Tarrant, 1989; Wiklund, 2005).



Myburgh (2004:12) reminds us that there is an ongoing ideological battle over the meaning of democracy. The South African Constitution includes an unequivocal commitment to representative and participatory democracy; incorporating the concepts of accountability, transparency and public involvement (SA, 1996a). Theoretically defined, participatory democracy refers to a form of direct democracy that enables all members of a society to participate in decision-making processes within institutions, organisations, societal and government structures. Adams and Waghid (2005:25) regard participation, community engagement, rationality, consensus, equality and freedom as the constitutive principles of the South African democracy. With the increasing decentralization of fiscal, political, and administrative responsibilities to local spheres of government, local institutions, and communities, the notions of participation and deliberation have emerged as fundamental tenets in the promotion of the local governance of schools (Grant Lewis & Naidoo, 2004:1). The policy of decentralization of education according to participatory democratic theory has become a key aspect of educational restructuring in the international arena (Aspin, 1995:30; Sayed 1999:141; Karlsson, 2002:327-336).

Deliberative democracy is the most recent theory that suggests an improved form of democracy through the implementation of deliberative principles based on Habermasian discourse ethics (Eriksen & Weigard, 2003:128). Theoretically defined, deliberative democracy refers to the notion that legitimate political decision-making emanates from the public deliberation of citizens. In other words, as a normative account of political decision-making, deliberative democracy evokes ideals of rational legislation, participatory politics and civic self-governance (Cunningham 2002: 163). Adams and Waghid (2005:25) regard participation, community engagement, rationality, consensus, equality and freedom as the constitutive principles of deliberative democracy in South Africa.

Proponents of deliberative democracy suggest that, in principle, deliberative democracy has applied the most attractive features of liberal and republican theories, and has avoided the shortcomings of the traditional theories. The four principles of deliberative democracy, viz. generality, autonomy, power neutrality and ideal role-taking, are standards whereby the applicability of deliberative theory can be measured (Eriksen & Weigard, 2003:128). The deliberative model of democracy maintains that citizens are treated equally when the exercise of political or bureaucratic power can be justified by reasons, which can be approved by all after adequate rational deliberation has taken place (Eriksen & Weigard, 2003:128).

Nevertheless, substantive democracy, however defined, has not been fully realised anywhere in the world because all the traditional models of democracy (i.e. liberal, republican, social and elitist) have inherent weaknesses and flaws such as the favouring of the rich and talented, the oppression of minorities, aggregation of self-interested decision-making, dominance of hegemonies, wasteful welfarism and corrupt or authoritarian elitism and bureaucracy are all embedded in the system (Cunningham, 2002:1-248). Of course, this also implies that all the weaknesses of the liberal, republican, social and elitist traditions of democracy are present in the South African political and social system. This will be investigated in the sections that follow.


Undemocratic features in the South African education system

Several undemocratic features are present in the system of school governance and will be discussed in more detail in this section.

Systemic weaknesses

Systemic weaknesses of the traditional models of democracy(i.e. liberal, republican, social and elitist) are evident from the following examples in the education system:

• The former Model C schools (generally well-resourced and previously advantaged) are functioning and performing well with the present model of state-aided school governance, whereas most of the previously disadvantaged schools are dysfunctional (Taylor, 2006:3). Thus, liberal democratic features in our system inherently favour the previously advantaged schools;

• Language rights of African learners as well as Afrikaans single medium schools are disrespected or disparaged by provincial officials. The quantitative study of this research revealed tha