Controversial principal appears in court, denies all accusations against him.
Picture: Barbara Maregele
Nearly 30 years after taking on the post as principal at his alma mater, South Peninsula High School, Brian Isaacs, says he remains passionate about his work and is determined to see the school excel to new heights. This despite him being embroiled in a number of legal battles and disciplinary hearings.
“From the time I started, there have been threats against me. Over the years, I've not only gained the trust and confidence of my staff, but also from most of the students,” Isaacs said.
Apart from his duties as head of the school, Isaacs is actively involved in the political organisation, the New Unity Movement.
Isaacs is known for speaking out against the Western Cape Department of Education and for supporting the group which lobbied against the closure of 27 schools in the province.
In the most recent spat, Isaacs appeared in the Wynberg Magistrates' Court on 30 April, following complaints by a group of Diep River residents over the volume of the school's public address system they say they can hear in their homes. They accuse Isaacs of inciting racial tension among white and coloured residents in the area.
“There has been occasions when he gave us musical and political history over the loudspeaker. This doesn't concern us residents at 7am. I don't judge people according to their colour, but Mr Isaacs does,” resident Donald Beckwith told the court on Thursday.
The City of Cape Town laid a formal charge of noise nuisance against Isaacs and the school after the residents submitted a petition in 2011. The matter has been in court since December 2013. It was remanded until 20 May.
"I feel very strongly that there should be no fees or private schools, even religious schools should be taken over by government."
Isaacs has also been summoned to an internal hearing by the Western Cape Department of Education over several allegations which include assaulting a student and improper conduct. The hearing is expected to start on 13 May.
Isaacs has denied all the allegations against him and publicly accused the provincial department of orchestrating a “witch-hunt” against him.
At the end of this year, Isaacs, 60, who lives in Lansdowne with his wife, will celebrate his 38th year at the school, 30 of them as principal.
“My family was moved to Lansdowne when I was 13. Myself and my four brothers all ended up attending South Peninsula. After matriculating, I did a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Zoology and Botany at the University of the Western Cape in 1972. Here is where I saw the overt racism at the institution. Thereafter, I did a teaching course,” he said.
Isaacs started teaching Life Science in 1977. After several years as a teacher, Isaacs accepted the challenge of becoming principal in July 1984.
“Most of the experienced teachers were retiring and the next group of leadership didn't want to take over because of the political situation surrounding schools at the time. It was the time of mass rallies and students mobilising for protests.
“I was in my twenties when they asked me to take over. I had a son who was just four years old at the time. I took the post then, but the Department of Education would not acknowledge me for four years because they said I was too young for the post,” he said.
Isaacs attributed the success at the school to the foundation laid by his predecessors.
“I still want to be involved in the school after I've left just like the previous principal [Mr Murat]. I believe all the knowledge is lost if the school does not keep in touch with the people who did a good job at running the school. I have already set in motion a succession plan so the school will continue to succeed after I've left,” he said.
South Peninsula has a good reputation for a school serving predominantly working class children. It performs consistently well. It obtained a 96% pass rate last year. 82% of the students received a Bachelor's Pass.
About four years ago, Isaacs formed a group called the Progressive Principals Association. Isaacs said he has since distanced himself from this group.
“I'm not happy with the direction the group has taken. The group believes in negotiations to avoid protest movements. I've always been pushing the importance of understanding things politically. You don't need to belong to a particular (political) party, but you need to understand politics in order to make the right decisions,” Isaacs said.
He is still a member of the Concerned Teachers group which was formed in 1998.
Isaacs acknowledged that his political views stemmed from his involvement with the New Unity Movement:
“In the 1940s, people got together to form an alliance supporting non-racialism. This was called the All Africa Convention. Out of this group came the non-European Unity Movement which became the New Unity Movement. While the group is not in parliament, it believes in socialism by promoting a caring and sharing society. The group is running alongside other leftist organisations,” he said.
Isaacs said discipline and “arming students with knowledge” around a variety of topics was key to his school’s high performance.
He said he encouraged the support of groups and individuals who are fighting to “undo the wrongs done during apartheid.”
“Struggle is about dirtying your hands, being very careful not to play around with the education of children, but at the same time to give them [students] the necessary insight into what is happening in society,” he said.
He is passionate about lobbying for the discontinuation of private schools and fees.
No fees, no religious or private schools
“I feel very strongly that there should be no fees or private schools, even religious schools should be taken over by government. If we want to create an equal society, there are certain radical things that must be done. At the moment, my school also has to consider whether parents can pay school fees before their child can be accepted. The money to fund this should be done through an education tax, you just need a political will to implement it,” he said.
Isaacs added that because parents are desperate for “good education” they are willing to pay escalating school fees.
“It suits some people to charge fees because it automatically keeps out a group of people,” he said.
Isaacs is currently completing his doctoral research on Outcomes Based Education (OBE) after refusing to implement it at his school when it was first introduced in 2001. He said the system prevented students from becoming critical thinkers.
“I believe this was a curriculum to control the minds of people; it wasn't to develop critical thinkers. Everyone was doing different things. At South Peninsula we always believed that there must be a good text book, and not to waste time with all those research projects because youngsters are not researchers.
“Then the common task assessment was introduced between 2002 and 2009. These were silly little tests which were scrapped in 2010,” he said.
Seated at his desk in an office where the walls are covered with newspaper clippings, pictures of past principals and motivational quotes, Isaacs grins as he recalls his first disagreement with an official from the department.
“When the tricameral parliament was introduced, our students were part of the first group to boycott it in September 1984. The area manager who also had a son in matric at the school came and asked what was happening. I told him that the students were not attending classes and had asked me for awareness programmes about the tricameral system.
“He instructed me to stop the programmes and send the children back to their normal classes. I then told him that if I tell them to do that, the students will think I'm just obeying instructions. The boycott lasted about two weeks. By not complying that day, I gained the trust and confidence of the students,” he said.
Over the years, Isaacs has run into a number of disagreements with department officials.
“Around 1985, the Department accused me of organising a mass meeting. In the 1990s, I got into trouble for not wanting to allow subject advisors into the school. In 1994, I suspended a boy for his rudeness; the mother said I forced her to take a transfer. I was fined one month's salary. This was overturned in court. Around 1995, we fought against rationalisation and were threatened with a court interdict,” he said.
In the latest saga with the department, Isaacs faces disciplinary action for several allegations which include two of “serious misconduct” as well as two for “victimisation and improper conduct” at the school.
“In one of our school meetings, a mother asked why I called her son 'scum'. I explained that her son had urinated in a bottle and then threw it over a group of girls. I told her that I consider someone who acts like this to be scum. The other charge is that I hit a boy. Another girl said I spat in her face. These two cases were thrown out of court,” he said.
On 23 March, Isaacs received a letter from the department stating that while he did not face suspension, the hearing was a necessity and “would have no major consequence” for him.
“When I applied for legal representation for the hearing, I was told I could represent myself because there would be no major consequence for me. If I get suspended or fired, I lose my benefits like a monthly pension and unemployment fund; these are major consequences for me. Now, I have to pay my own legal fees,” he said.
Western Cape Education Department spokesman Paddy Attwell said that there was no witch-hunt against Isaacs.
“We can confirm that the charges include assault, improper conduct, intimidation and failure to obey a lawful instruction. The department is not conducting a witch hunt against Mr Isaacs. The department is obliged to investigate any allegation against any employee in line with the relevant legislation and prescripts,” he said.
This article is used with permission via GroundUp