Merger madness

The Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) seems to be losing the plot in addressing the problem of declining enrolment at some schools in Soweto.

The GDE has ordered that Orlando High School must vacate its premises and merge with Altem High School. Orlando High is vehemently opposed to the merger, but the GDE argues that a drop in enrolment at both schools is sufficient reason for the two to merge.

Orlando High School, which offers classes from grade 10 to 12, was built to accommodate 1 100 learners, but its enrolment has shrunk to 451 with 14 educators. Altem High has a much lower enrolment with only six educators, half of whom are working on a temporary basis.

Job Rathebe Junior Secondary School, which is adjacent to Orlando High and whose enrolment has soared to 811 — surpassing its capacity to accommodate 560 learners — will then occupy Orlando High Schools premises.

But education commentators warn that mergers will not adequately deal with the problem of dwindling numbers at township schools.

They call for a more coherent strategy that will address the reasons why learners leave these schools in droves. The strategy should look into rehabilitation of school infrastructure, committing more resources and facilities to schools, and raising teacher morale by providing consistent training and thereby improving learners performances.

There is no short cut to improving the quality of an education system. This is more so in the case of an education system that was not designed to deliver quality education to the vast majority of learners, says Brian Ramadiro of the Education Rights Project.

Archie Kubayi, acting principal of Orlando High School, says the flight of learners seeking greener pastures at schools with better resources and facilities and quality education is not a new phenomenon. He says there are still thousands of parents who have confidence in township-based schools, and that it therefore still remains the responsibility of the government to provide quality education at these schools.

Kubayi attributes the poor enrolment at his school to the fact that the department does not want to allow us to add junior classes, which, he argues, sustain most schools in the area.

I am sure that if they allow us to enrol learners from grades 6 to 9, our numbers will improve tremendously and there will not be a need for a merger, he says. He is also critical of the manner in which the GDE is handling the merger process.

Ramadiro also calls for a buy-in of all parties involved in the merger. How educators are treated in the process can make or break the newly merged schools, he says. If the mergers are not handled competently, they can generate a new low point in educator morale.

GDE spokesperson Panyasa Lesufi thinks differently, however: We believe it [the merger] is going to bring excitement into the classrooms. It is going to bring commitment out of the educators. So to us its an exciting initiative.

Lesufi concedes that parents have shown a vote of no confidence by not enrolling their children in township schools, as they do not provide quality education.

Ramadiro says after 10 years of democracy, educators, education policymakers and education policy planners have a sense of the problems in the education system and agree on what should happen in order to remedy it. [But] what we sorely miss is the political will and the resources to back up the political declarations as articulated in education policy.

Ramadiro identifies three main issues, which, if addressed by the GDE, will transform the education system into a humane and productive system.

Firstly, classes should be smaller, which he says suits learners whose medium of instruction is a second language [such as English] and whose natural potential for learning is undermined by being born into and living in poverty.

Secondly, facilities and infrastructure such as photocopiers, libraries and science laboratories should be provided, which are required for any meaningful and sustained learning and teaching to take place. And thirdly, adequate and healthy meals should be provided to all children.

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