Why hope rests on a few shelves of books

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School library campaign will change lives

Why hope rests on a few shelves of books

Cape Times April 23, 2010 Edition 1 

Yolanda Benya is 16 years old and is in Grade 12 at Kwamfundo Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha. She rises at 6am every weekday – by which time her mother has left for work – and gets herself and her younger brother ready for school. 

She irons his school uniform, prepares his lunch, and makes sure his bag is packed and that he is neat and tidy. They sit down and have breakfast together, after which they make the half-hour walk to school. Her brother’s primary school is near Kwamfundo, so Yolanda drops him off on her way. 

Yolanda attends after-school maths and physics classes on most days of the week. These go on until 5pm, after which she walks back to her RDP home. When she arrives, she has to see to her brother – he and his friends walk home together – and clean the house. She sweeps the floor, washes the dishes, and cleans her own and her brother’s school shirts. By now it’s 7pm, and Yolanda begins the cooking. 

An hour later supper is ready, and her mother has arrived home. Yolanda dishes up for her mother, her mother’s partner, her brother and herself. After supper, she tidies the house again, helps her brother with his homework and gets him ready for bed. 

It’s only at 10, sometimes 11pm, that Yolanda can open her books to study and do homework. She often goes to bed after 1am.

Education in townships like Khayelitsha takes places under extremely difficult conditions.

Other than high levels of unemployment and poverty, high schools inherit educational inequalities from the primary schools that surround them. These inequities are difficult to correct as schools are poorly resourced, classes are large and few pupils finish school with grades high enough to study at university. 

Performance in mathematics and physical science is particularly poor. For example, of the 1 797 pupils who wrote matric mathematics in 2008, 68 percent failed and only 81 (4.5 percent) scored 60 percent or more. 

Yolanda is also a leading member of Equal Education, a movement of pupils, teachers, parents and community members working for quality and equality in South African education, and established in Khayelitsha in 2008. 

She attends weekly youth group meetings where she and her fellow “Equalisers” receive political education emphasising the importance of education, human rights and non-violent political action. These meetings provide a space for young people to read, discuss and debate real problems, in their own language. 

These young people are then involved in leading practical and active political campaigns seeking to address these problems. 

The first of these was the Broken Windows Campaign, run in late 2008, that led to the Western Cape Education Department’s replacing 500 broken windows at Luhlaza Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha. This campaign was also Yolanda’s introduction to Equal Education. 

The second campaign was No To Late-Coming. It ran over three months early last year and saw a dramatic fall in the number of pupils arriving late at some of the eight high schools in Khayelitsha where it was run. 

Equal Education’s campaign now, its biggest yet, is the call for a national policy on school libraries that will provide for every school to have a functioning library and an implementation plan that will set targets for the realisation of this. 

Since 1997, the Department of Education has circulated five successive drafts of a policy on school libraries, according to the Libraries Transformation Charter, yet there is no official policy. A sixth draft is in circulation, but it reads like a discussion document, not a policy. 

The Campaign for School Libraries is a response to a real need and is based on sound research. 

Only 8 percent of public schools have functioning libraries. A further 13 percent have an unstocked library space, while the vast majority, 79 percent, have neither a physical library space nor a book collection. 

These figures must be viewed in the broader context of the class-based inequalities in our education system and society. In Khayelitsha, only a handful of the 53 schools have functioning libraries, while the rest of the township’s 700 000 residents depend on just five public libraries. 

Yolanda’s school does not have a library, so on Saturday mornings she makes the 30km journey to the Cape Town library by taxi, a trip that costs R24 return. There she can read books to help her with maths and science, carry out research for projects and assignments in books and on the internet, and study and do her homework undisturbed. 

Last month, as part of its Campaign for School Libraries, Equal Education undertook a series of public marches across the country – in Cape Town, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane. 

In Cape Town, where more than 10 000 people – most of them pupils from township schools – marched to Parliament, and in Pretoria and Polokwane, a memorandum setting out the demands of the campaign and a petition signed by 65 000 people were handed to the Department of Basic Education. 

The memorandum requests that the department respond officially to its demands by May 1. 

The greatest benefit of libraries is that they promote a love of books and a culture of reading. This helps to combat the problem of illiteracy, which lies at the heart of our education crisis. 

Illiteracy is, of course, not a simple problem with a single solution, and is affected by a host of factors, including early childhood development, literacy practices in the home and the quality of teaching. 

Yet, it is clear that to promote literacy, books need to be made easily accessible to all. So while middle-class children grow up surrounded by books at home and at school, working-class and poor pupils, like

Yolanda, grow up with little access to books at either. Yolanda and Equal Education believe a national rollout of school libraries is affordable. 

Equal Education has calculated the costs as follows: physical infrastructure, R7.92 billion; books, R1.98bn; librarian training, R350 million; and librarian salaries, an annual cost that varies according to the level of qualification, between R1.19bn and R2.67bn.

If the amounts for infrastructure, materials and training were spread over 10 years, about R1.02bn a year would be required, which is less than 1 percent of the education budget of R165bn. Thereafter, only salary costs would remain. 

This is for every school in the country. But if we are forced to choose, why not begin with primary schools, with large schools, or with a set number of schools in each province? 

Librarian posts, a mandate for schools to establish libraries, and a budget allocation to make it happen are the vital ingredients. 

Equal Education has now been assured by the acting director-general for basic education, Bobby Soobrayan, that infrastructure norms will be finalised imminently, making the goal of a library in every school official policy. 

Public vigilance is the only guarantee that this will happen. 

Thereafter, funding, implementing, stocking and staffing these libraries will be an immense task, and cannot be the state’s responsibility alone. 

But the government must lead with a detailed implementation plan and timelines. We must combine greater mobilisation and advocacy with volunteerism and service. 

The struggle for school libraries and quality public education will only intensify. 

Written By Brad Brockman

**Brad Brockman is a researcher in the policy, communications and research department at Equal Education.