THE BLOG

The Media Has Shifted The Power In Schools

All schools are complex spaces and the current shifts in power have made it difficult for schools to function with autonomy and credibility.

28/09/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 28/09/2017 05:23 SAST
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My first teaching post was at a school in Cape Town. After my three-year stint at the school, I had dealt with issues of homophobia, classism, racism, teenage pregnancy, violent masculinity, suicide, drug usage and teenage pregnancy. This is not an exhaustive list of the issues I encountered while I taught at the school.

This is also not a complete representation which fully captures the extent of the enriching experience I had while I taught at the school -- [like going to fun school camps, creating relevant modules with my colleagues, watching young people's talent blossom on stage, having challenging conversations with my students and forming valuable relationships with them in the process].

This experience was largely overseen by a leadership structure and teacher body which constantly engaged about these issues in spite of the challenges that exist in schools. I use my experience at a particular school in a particular context as a starting point for making the argument that all schools are complex spaces and the current shifts in power have made it difficult for schools to function with autonomy and credibility.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about what it has meant for the incident at Pretoria Girls High School to have fallen off the radar after the news coverage of the girls protesting about serious issues in the school. I'm left with the same questions about the way in which the media jumped on the St John's College incident as well as reporting other stories about violence in schools.

Anyone who has worked in South African schools will tell you that these issues have been happening for years; the difference in 2016 and 2017 is that information makes it to social media much quicker than ever before.

With students who are able to record, share and eventually post videos about what is happening in schools, it has meant that the level of control [and power] teachers used to have over how information is disseminated is finally shifting. The incidences in schools which have made it into the media are a fraction of what has happened and continues to happen in our schools.

The stories which make it into the news cycle should also have us asking questions about how it is that some schools are still able to maintain a tighter control over their internal issues and others are not.

It's also quite interesting to watch how the media chooses to report issues. An overwhelming number of stories would have us believe that the major problem in most privileged schools [private schools with students from more affluent homes]; are issues of racism and uniform issues while township schools and schools in poorer communities are dealing with violence [amongst students and inflicted by teachers] and teacher misconduct.

While there is some truth in these incidences, I think there's more happening which is not making it to the news for various reasons. One obvious reason could be the internal processes and mechanisms schools have for dealing with issues before they escalate and eventually posted on social media.

The Gauteng MEC for Education recently held the Independent Schools Responsibility Summit where some of these issues were discussed particularly focusing on some of the failures of both the private and public system of education.

The MEC's remarks about the responsibility of schools highlight the extent to which problems exist in both sectors. The summit seems to have covered a lot of ground where issues of non-racialism, policy compliance, and curriculum compliance made it onto the programme.

However, I am left asking why this summit was only focusing on independent schools? Surely all schools need an intervention. Are these schools getting attention because they are in the spotlight and some of them educate the children of the elite?

The stories which make it into the news cycle should also have us asking questions about how it is that some schools are still able to maintain a tighter control over their internal issues and others are not. I've alluded to the question of power and autonomy which has operated in schools which seems to be shifting. Teachers are no longer as trustworthy as they used to be.

Most teachers are afraid of being 'nailed' and something they say is tweeted or posted on Facebook and Twitter out of context.

Schools are no longer safe spaces where parents can relegate their power to them. In fact, in more affluent schools, parents have been seen to have more power over the teachers because they are paying the kind of money which allows and enables them to make demands in their schools.

This adds to the strain which schools are operating under because the power and influence they can have over internal issues can be undermined by a parent who has connections with those in power. In working-class communities, this may operate differently where students are more outspoken but their stories don't make it to the news because of the media bias against working class communities.

As someone who was a teacher and who is in constant communication with various teachers, I have been privy to conversations about how teachers feel about the level of exposure and the nature of the spotlight on schools. Most teachers are afraid of being 'nailed' and something they say is tweeted or posted on Facebook and Twitter out of context.

There's also a level of vulnerability amongst teachers where decisions are made out of fear [of being caught out or misunderstood] rather than sticking to the principle of the matter. Much of how schools are able to function and reproduce certain practices is largely because of the autonomous nature in which schools ought to operate where they can use their own internal processes in order to solve internal problems.

However, the attention from the media and the stories on social media would have us believe that the internal processes in schools are failing hence the outlet on social media becoming more apparent.