The appropriate treatment of children is not only a moral issue, but an important investment in a country’s future. No child should be excluded from quality education. Schools should therefore be managed in such a way that it ensures that all children can learn in a child-friendly, safe and stimulating environment in order for its learners to reach their full potential. Simply put, schools should operate with the “best interests of the child” in mind. In South Africa the “best interests of the child” gained prominence in section 28(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1996. Section 28(2) of the Constitution states: “[a] child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”
Quality education is one of the cornerstones of any society. It is therefore important for any country to develop a functional education system. Unfortunately this is not the case in South Africa. South Africa’s education system performs poorly and lags behind much poorer countries which spend less on education. South Africa has experienced important political, legal and social changes since 1994, but in spite of many positive changes, the education system is characterised by great inequalities and considerable differences regarding learners’ access to quality education. All families, including those in rural areas, would like to see their children attain success through formal and effective education. The majority of schools in KwaZulu-Natal are poor, dysfunctional and unable to equip learners with the necessary skills. Most of these schools are located in the rural areas and lag behind their urban counterparts. The reason for my research is to explore whether current educational practice is in the best interests of the child who attends a rural school. Too few policy-makers pay attention to what our legislation promises.
The purpose of this study was not to generalise, but to explore and understand how perceptions of education managers, with regard to the “best interests of the child” principle, may affect the quality of education in a rural setting. The study focused on education managers of under-performing rural schools, in the uThungulu District of KZN. The purpose is to understand why many public schools in disadvantaged areas (mostly rural areas) in KZN are under-performing. This multi-site case study aimed to make a case for education in the “best interests of the child”. The multi-site case study also aimed to gain an in-depth understanding of the “best interests of the child”, attending a rural school and how to improve the output and through-put (progression) of learners attending these under-performing rural schools. The research question driving the research was: How may the perceptions of education managers, regarding the “best interests of the child”, affect the quality of education at rural schools in KwaZulu-Natal?
The study adopted a qualitative research approach that was based on an interpretive paradigm. Data were collected by means of document analysis, semi-structured interviews and focus group interviews. Convenience and purposeful sampling was used to select under-performing rural schools from the uThungulu District of KwaZulu-Natal. The data which emerged from the thematic data analysis revealed that, education managers from these under-performing rural schools are well aware of what the “best interests of the child” should be, but challenges, circumstances and contextual factors prevent them from delivering quality education which will serve the “best interests of the child”.
Based on the findings, the following recommendations are suggested: Introduce a Basic Education Act that includes the “best interests of the child” principle. Findings revealed that education in the “best interests of the child” should include the fulfilment of the child’s emotional needs; physical needs and the ability to attend a school in a safe environment. Education in the “best interests of the child” should also include the availability of adequate human and physical resources. It is further recommended that school laws, policies and procedures should be reviewed to align with the well-being of children and with the “best interests of the child” in mind. Based on the findings it is suggested that the “best interests of the child” should become the leading principle in guiding all decisions affecting a child’s education. Furthermore, it is recommended that adequate and context specific management training needs to be put in place in order for education managers to manage a rural school with the “best interests of the child” in mind. All schools, including rural schools should offer at least three streams. Lastly, education managers need to establish a culture of teaching and learning in public rural schools.
Education in the “best interests of the child” will level the playing field between rural and urban learners and close the achievement gap which exists amongst them. Former President, Nelson Mandela believed that the soul of a society could be seen in the way it treats its children. Taking education in the “best interests of the child” seriously, may have a huge impact on vulnerable children in rural areas.