With three years left to retirement, South Peninsula High School principal Brian Isaacs feels he has done everything he wanted to do in education. And in spite of a suspension and displinary process hanging over him, he believes “the school goes on. My fight has been a just, principled one. I’m at peace.”
During the interview with the Bulletin at his Lansdowne home, Mr Isaacs spoke about his frustration with the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED), what drove him to continue fighting and about his relationship with the surrounding community.
Usually stern and intimidating, on Saturday he had a broad smile as he proudly displayed the school’s latest accolade. That morning he had been presented with an award for con- sistently delivering experienced academic talent for admission into the undergraduate programme at Stellenbosch University over the past five years. The event, the Top-100 feeder schools, was hosted by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.
Over the years the school has consistently achieved good matric pass rates with 98% in 2015 up from 95.8% the previous year and 100% in 2013 and 2010.
At Mr Isaacs’ home, which he shares with his wife Bridget and youngest son, Chad, the walls of the lounge are decorated with pictures and certificates of him receiving degrees from the University of the Western Cape – a BSc, HDE and M.Ed.
He has been at SPHS for 39 years – since 1977 – 1930 of which he served as principal. A measure of his faith in the school is that he and Bridget have sent their two sons to South Peninsula. Dale has an MSC in engineering from UCT and Chad studied architecture and is now going into marketing. During our interview they arrive for a family braai.
So what drives someone into the hot water he regularly finds himself in? “I want to expose pupils to ideas they would not normally get from their parents or social institutions they belong to,” he says. “People don’t like me to talk about the politics and injustices of education but the same things are happening all over the world and it’s a problem maintaining the status quo. I’m open-minded on matters, not dogmatic in my approach and I’m not just doing my own thing but am listening to residents. Also I want to show that a school like SP can send out students that South Africa can be proud of, who can achieve.”
He says he has spent his life fighting for rights, from the days of apartheid, to fighting policies of the new dispensation, such as outcomes-based education. His present battle is that of discipline, a fight not only for himself and his school but for every teacher and ultimately for every pupil.
Despite its flaws, Mr Isaacs points out that in the days of the old Department of Coloured Affairs, officials didn’t get involved in disciplinary matters, that there had been fewer problems with pupils’ discipline and teachers had been happy.
Mr Isaacs said in 1994 teachers were fined R4 000 to R5 000 if found guilty of corporal punishment, or they were suspended without pay or dismissed. Around 1999 teachers were banned from administering corporal punishment. “Now they’re taking children’s rights to the extreme. Everything is about children and not the rights of teachers and pupils – there’s no balance. The dice is loaded against the teacher. This has been an ongoing issue for 22 years and it’s time teachers challenge this,” he says
Mr Isaacs is currently facing two disciplinary hearings, the first of which relates to an allegation that he assaulted a child. “There are various categories of assault – malicious, a smack and a hit, but the department has one, if you touch a child and they feel pain, it’s assault (“Community held ‘ransom’ by noise”, Bulletin January 29, 2015).”
Mr Isaacs says it is impossible in a teacher’s everyday life not to touch a child. “If two children are going at each other we pull them apart. That’s why teachers don’t get involved in fights. Take the case where a teacher is being charged for not getting involved when a pupil stabbed another child and the teacher saw it but didn’t get involved,” he says.
The second hearing resulted from an accusation that he called the girlfriend of a boy scum. “She didn’t even see the interaction; she heard about it, came to me and asked why I don’t hit her. If you consider that I should, then I consider you to be scum,” he says.
The other ongoing issue is a noise nuisance complaint regarding the school’s public address (PA) system, which is currently being heard by the court. Mr Isaacs has been recorded making political statements, singing and playing music, not only during school times but also over some weekends.
Mr Isaacs was instructed not to use the PA system, which was installed in 1984, and says they have toned it down, no longer playing music, although the kids love it. Mr Isaacs says research shows that music settles pu- pils.
While there is an ongoing court case, he believes the answer to the issue of noise is for the City to call a meeting between the residents and the school, even if he is asked not to attend, and to reach an agreement.
On February 26 some of the 100 people who signed a petition in a bid to get Mr Isaacs to stop using the PA system, filled court five of the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court. Defence attorney Abu-bakr Hendricks asked Mr Isaacs if he makes political statements over the PA system to which he replied: “My view of South African history of the struggle cannot be ignored and if one comments on issues of land struggle, politics, the way homes are built in poor areas, can a principal not address pupils and teachers?”
In court Mr Isaacs also spoke of “apartheid beneficiaries wanting to control the area”, an issue he returned to during our interview over the weekend, when he spoke about the forced removal of coloured residents, from the area surrounding the school, under the apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act.
Mr Isaacs also raised residents’ ire when he refused to allow the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to use the school for voter registration on Saturday and Sunday March 5 and 6. His reluctance to do so, he noted in a letter to the Western Cape Commissioner of the IEC, stemmed from the fact that the Democratic Alliance (DA) had been allowed to have a can- vassing table inside the school grounds on national elections day, May 7 2014. He said he had also received a complaint that DA officials had spoken to voters waiting in line to cast their votes. He said he had pointed this out to the IEC official who requested to use the school’s hall, but did not get a response.
Despite his seemingly relentless activism and demanding schedule at school, Mr Isaacs does find time to unwind, and is an avid tennis player and secretary of Lansdowne Tennis Club. He also plays table tennis, tends his own garden and the play park across the road from his home and also reads a lot.
His wife Bridget, he says, keeps him in line and prevents him from stepping over the proverbial line. “She’s manager of one of the City’s housing branches and much smaller than me.” He smiles.
* A group of people held a demonstration outside the WCED office in the CBD on Monday March 7 claiming that the suspension of Mr Isaacs is invalid and illegal. WCED spokesperson Paddy Attwell said the department suspended Mr Isaacs after receiving complaints that he was using the public address system to insult members of the public, and was refusing to allow pupils to return to school. He was already facing two disciplinary matters.
Asked if the WCED is tar- geting Mr Isaacs and trying to discredit him because of his criticisms of the department’s policies and decisions on issues such as outcome-based education (OBE) and closure of schools, Mr Attwell responded no. The WCED is obliged to investigate specific complaints of misconduct involving any employee, and applies due process accordingly. He also added that the department is not victimising Mr Isaacs and he will be suspended until the finalisation of the case.