Tree schools blight SA's education system
The breezy shade of a tall thorn tree in the middle of a field strewn with puddles of cow dung provides a cool sanctuary on South Africa’s hot summer days.
But not if you are a child from Zandise Junior Primary School in the Eastern Cape, and the tree is your classroom.
Every day children between the ages of four and 11 jostle for space under the imposing tree, so that they have a clear view of the blackboard that is balanced against its narrow trunk.
“Today the weather is on our side, we have a very good attendance. When it rains, very few children are able to come,” said school principal Bulelwa Nkaitshana.
Nkaitshana began teaching at the school in 2004, and she is upbeat that things will get better, once the off-kilter mud hut being built by the community is complete.
“I know this may sound funny to outsiders, but this is all we have,” said Nkaitshana.
The school teaches 87 children, from pre-school to third grade, who would otherwise have no other school to go to in the mountainous Ndimakude village.
The poor facilities are despite South Africa’s unrivalled education spending, which is the biggest in the developing world, and are one of the key issues weighing on voters’ minds as they head into national elections on April 22.
The government has poured money into education—spending jumped from R12,4-billion in 2005-06 to
R19,7-billion in 2008-09, according to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.
However, the large sums have not filtered through the nation’s poorest regions, 15 years after the first all-race elections.
The failure of schools to provide enough skilled workers was cited by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in a
report last year as a drag on the economy that worsens the dire unemployment rate.
At Zandise, there are four teachers, but for eight years only one teacher taught all the grades—until new teachers were hired in 2007.
“To say we are under-resourced will be an understatement. We have nothing at all. Our pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears with the department of education,” said Nkaitshana.
“The previous mud hut collapsed in February. We hope that the new government will prioritise the building of schools,” said Nkaitshana, as her class of 15 is busy reciting numbers in isiXhosa.
Rural schools, particularly those in the Eastern Cape, are worlds apart from some of the country’s posh public and private schools found in most urban centres.
“The children who attend this school are from very poor backgrounds, some of them are orphans ... education is their only key to a better life,” said the principal.
Provincial education spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani said the government plans to do away with 835 dilapidated schools in the Eastern Cape,
including those operating under trees, within three years.
“The struggle to build decent schools is an uphill struggle,” said Pulumani.
Government’s first deadline to eradicate mud hut schools was 2004, but the timeline has been pushed back.
A 2007 survey found that one quarter of the country’s nearly 29 000 schools were in poor condition, while 61% of schools—mainly in rural areas—had no sanitation.
“The poor state of the Eastern Cape school is worsened by a dysfunctional provincial administration,” said Graeme Bloch, a specialist in education from the Development Bank of Southern Africa.
“About 80% of the national education budget goes to paying teacher salaries, not much is allocated to improving infrastructure,” said Bloch.
Classes at Zindise are often disrupted by wandering domestic animals, passersby and cars that drive along the winding dirt road.
“I love school, but sometimes I wish our school was better than this. I would like to sit at a desk and not kneel on the ground ... there is a lot of dust here,” said 11-year old Sikho Mazwi. - AFP