Equal Education (EE) and the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) support the Eastern Cape school rationalisation process, but it must be conducted lawfully, democratically, and in accordance with the requirements and deadlines stipulated by the Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. Learners’ rights to education must be protected!
In December of last year, Eastern Cape Premier Phumullo Masualle announced plans to close over 2 000 small schools in the province.This plan has been in the works for some years with little action taken. However, at the end of last month schools (revised down to 1902 in number) began receiving letters informing them that they were scheduled to be closed.
EE and the EELC are cautiously supportive of rationalisation in the Eastern Cape, bearing in mind both the systemic improvements which can be unlocked through this process, and the potential for violations of learners’ rights.
The Eastern Cape is a predominantly rural province, incorporating two former homelands. This historic inequality manifests itself in under-resourced schools, including many small schools in remote areas. There are 5 433 schools in the Eastern Cape, compared to 1 441 schools in the Western Cape and 2 069 schools in Gauteng. The average number of learners in an Eastern Cape school is 340. In Gauteng it is 939.
Rationalisation will create fewer, but larger schools; this could allow the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDoE) to achieve greater economies of scale in education provisioning, and achieve more with the funding they receive.
Small schools tend to have lower learner : educator ratios. Partly as a result, the province spends over 90% of its education budget on compensation of employees. Rationalisation may enable this to decrease, by distributing educators more efficiently and evenly.
It will also allow the provincial department to better monitor and support schools.
Small, rural schools are often difficult to reach and may have limited connectivity.
In addition to systemic improvements in efficiency, rationalisation can lead to improvements in teaching and learning. In small schools, educators often teach multiple grades in a single class. This is not ideal. Subject choices are limited at small schools as well. Moving to larger schools can allow learners to escape mud schools, dilapidated structures, pit latrines or no toilets at all, and other inadequate school infrastructure.
But rationalisation must happen fairly. Section 33 of the South African Schools Act requires the provincial MEC to inform the school governing body (SGB) of the intention to close their school, allow the SGB to respond, hold a public hearing for the community to make representations around the closure, and give consideration to the representations.
It is crucial that this is followed in substance as well as form: SGBs and communities must be properly informed and genuinely engaged on the matter, bearing in mind that they may raise compelling reasons why closure of their school should not happen. There is also a need to be sensitive to their attachment to the school and its relationship to the community.
Central to this is that there should be a clear plan, presented to the school, for where the learners currently attending that school will be moved, and how they will be accommodated or transported. Without this information, the community is unlikely to support closure. This plan is necessary for the systematic and efficient implementation of the rationalisation programme, as well as to enable the SGB and community to formulate their engagements and representations from an informed and complete position.
Learners’ best interests
The Constitution requires that the consultation process take into account the best interests of learners. Rationalisation cannot compromise the right to education.
Learners attending schools scheduled for closure must be guaranteed spaces in other schools. The worst case scenario is hundreds or thousands of learners unable to secure places in neighbouring schools at the start of the new school year. Nearby schools’ enrolment capacity must be assessed. In extreme cases closure may need to be put on hold until additional classrooms and other facilities are provided in the neighbouring school.
A further potential pitfall is educator post distribution. Schools receive their post establishment based on the previous year’s enrolment numbers. There is a danger that they will receive insufficient educators to deal with the additional learners prompted by closure of nearby schools. To solve this, the department should consider direct transfers of educators from closed schools as an interim measure before accurate post provisioning can be complied with.
Learners will require guaranteed transport to their new schools. In cases where this is too far to commute daily, there must be hostels built at destination schools before closure of non-viable small schools. Learners should also not be moved to a school with worse infrastructure than the one they currently attend.
All of this speaks again to the need for a coherent and publicly accessible plan for the rationalisation process, and for schools earmarked for closure to be informed of the plans in place to protect the interests of learners.
Norms and Standards: a demand for the release of provincial progress reports!
As noted, school rationalisation in the Eastern Cape has been in the works for years. However, large scale moves towards implementation of the programme are beginning just months before the first Norms and Standards deadline of 29 November, by which time all schools made of inappropriate materials must be replaced, and all schools must be provided with water, sanitation and electricity.
Rationalisation may well allow the province to close some of the worst-off schools. However, it must not be used as an excuse for failure to meet the deadline. The ECDoE must still be held accountable for this. After all, it planned to fail: its implementation plan, released in June 2015, openly stated that the deadline would not be met.
When the first Norms and Standards implementation plan was releases to the public, on 12 June 2015 (eight months after it was due to be handed to the Minister), it noted that “the re-alignment and rationalisation process will be aligned to the implementation of the Regulations”. Despite this, the full extent and detail of infrastructure backlog in the province were admittedly unknown, and the plan failed to explain how rationalisation would be effected in accordance with the deadlines in the Regulations.
The issue of accountability continues to run deep. EE recently wrote letters to the nine provincial MECs for education, requesting their Norms and Standards progress reports. By law they are required to submit these to the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, every year, with the last reports falling due on 29 November 2015. But none of these have been made public. Not a single province complied with our request. Nor did the national department. In our work, we continue to encounter schools without the basics and communities which have not been informed of their rights under the new infrastructure law.
It is clear that the first Norms and Standards deadline will not be met: by the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) own statistics, as of June 2016, 171 schools have no water supply, 569 schools have no electricity, and 68 schools have no toilets.
Concerned about this lack of implementation and the various loopholes in the Norms and Standards Regulations, and following several failed attempts to engage the National Department on these, EE, represented by the EELC, has recently launched litigation to close the gaps in the infrastructure Regulations. Among other things, we are asking the court for the inclusion of an accountability mechanism, compelling the National Department to publish annual implementation plans and reports within a reasonable time of receiving them from MECs. The experience to date tells a clear story: the Norms and Standards are not tools for communities to hold government accountable if there are no progress reports. A child’s right to education and safety must mean that the state plans and accounts in an open and transparent manner.
We demand a rationalisation plan, and a Norms and Standards Report, that account for the crises in school infrastructure and scholar transport, and that can be effected in an accountable and transparent way. We cannot accept that rationalisation, a programme which the Eastern Cape Department of Education has promised for a number of years, is used as an excuse for a continued failure to provide learners and teachers with safe and adequate school infrastructure. We call on teachers’ unions, and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) in particular to support a process that is in the best interest of learners.
For further comment:
Tshepo Motsepe (Equal Education General Secretary)
Nurina Ally (Director of Equal Education Law Centre)
Leanne Jansen-Thomas (Equal Education Head of Policy and Training)
Daniel Sher (Equal Education Deputy Head of Policy and Training)