Op ed: Schoolkids short-changed by the Treasury

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Following years of inadequate funding from the government, and now the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic, our public schools are at a breaking point.

Schools are struggling to pay their teachers, pupils are without access to textbooks, classrooms are overcrowded, and basics such as water and safe toilets are still not in place for every child.

Before the pandemic, national and provincial governments were already struggling to overcome the deep resource divide between affluent, predominantly white schools, and poorer, predominantly black schools — a consequence of apartheid’s dual education system.

This can partly be blamed on decreased funding by national and provincial treasuries, underspending, and wasteful and irregular expenditure at all levels of the government.

These challenges have resulted in many schools failing to meet the minimum legal requirements of a functioning school — enough water, toilets, electricity and classrooms to service the pupils who go there.

With the number of children enrolling in schools increasing, it has also meant that every year less and less money is available to cover each pupil’s basic expenses, such as textbooks, school furniture and other school supplies.

Covid-19 dealt a severe blow to this already fragile system as pupils, schools and communities had to navigate the unprecedented challenges that came with schooling in a pandemic.

Social distance measures required schools to have additional classroom space and sanitation facilities, and health and safety protocols required schools to implement new cleaning and monitoring systems and provide all pupils and staff with personal protective equipment.

With many schools already under-resourced, this has been a daunting task.

However, the National Treasury’s decision to provide no additional financial assistance to cover the new and unexpected costs, coupled with budget cuts to basic education — R2.1bn in 2020 — has pushed schools, and the sector as a whole, to the brink.

Some of the effects of the Covid-19 budget cuts were immediate. Cuts to school infrastructure grants amounted to R1.7bn in 2020, with an additional R4.4bn of grant money being used to pay for Covid-related costs such as temporary water tankers, sanitation materials, toilets and mobile classrooms.

As a result, 1,938 infrastructure projects under the education infrastructure grant alone were postponed or cancelled completely.

Budget cuts to provincial education departments have also had a direct impact on schools. In Limpopo, the provincial education department said 45% of schools’ budgets for 2020 must be put towards Covid-related cleaning expenses.