A flawed way forward

The struggle for free, quality, basic education continues, despite the Cabinet’s endorsement this month of a comprehensive action plan to address cost-related barriers that still hinder full access to basic education.

The action plan is the product of the government’s review of school education costs, which Minister of Education Kader Asmal released in March.

‘Sixty percent or more of our learners will have access to a free quality basic education” when the plan is fully implemented, Asmal announced this month. The Department of Education intends to start implementation ‘at least by 2005”, says acting deputy director general Firoz Patel. ‘But there is a fervent hope that we can find the money and the space in our budgets to start next year.”

Asmal also announced that learners with similar levels of poverty will receive the same minimum level of school funding regardless of the province in which they are located. And a national norm of R450 (in 2003 terms) will be allocated per learner for ‘non-personnel recurrent items” such as textbooks, stationery, water, electricity, maintenance of facilities and teaching equipment. This is double the current expenditure, Asmal said.

There will be automatic exemption from fees for learners who qualify for certain social service grants; the fees exemption process will be ‘strengthened”; and ‘less poor schools” will continue to charge fees ‘to fund their perceived quality choices”.

The plan is ‘a step in the right direction”, says John Lewis, research officer at the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). The union welcomes the plan’s national minimum basic package and its national (rather than provincial) poverty targeting.

But fees should be dropped for a much larger proportion of

learners, he says. ‘Those who can pay should continue to do so – but that shouldn’t exacerbate existing inequalities. Resources should be consciously redirected to the poor.”

The plan fails to address one of Sadtu’s most serious objections, Lewis says. The finance review that has given birth to the action plan was ‘largely silent” on personnel expenditure, which accounts for 90% of the education budget. Sadtu commented at the time that in this respect the review was ‘downright misleading”.

To the extent that the action plan reproduces this financial focus on merely 10% of the education budget, it amounts to ‘fiddling around with redress at the margins”, Lewis says.

The Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Education Rights Project (ERP), based at Wits University’s education policy unit, say in a detailed written analysis that there is a fundamental contradiction in government policy. The government purports to promote ‘basic education and … equal access to educational institutions” but ‘consciously continues to push the responsibility for getting an education onto ‘households and the private sector’”.

The government has approached school financing problems ‘from the wrong end”, says Stuart Wilson, a researcher at the Wits-based Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals). ‘The plan of action is based on the education department’s current resources and funds. Research has been conducted within these limits, rather than determining first how much funding the system requires to realise the constitutional right to basic education for all learners.”

‘The right to basic education is a strong positive right and should not be limited by the department’s current resources,” Wilson says. ‘The plan of action is incrementally progressive but the approach is too incremental to comply with the government’s constitutional obligations, in our view.”

Cals is also concerned that adult basic education and training (Abet) gets only ‘five lines” in the plan. ‘Three years after the Abet Act was passed, the department has still not finalised funding norms and mentions that this will happen only in 2004,” says Phillip Trotter, a visiting researcher at Cals.

Mass action in Soweto on June 16 this year is one indication that the battle for education rights is set to continue. About 5 000 people attended the march, says ERP representative Salim Vally. ‘The overwhelming majority were young people from schools in the area, which have a strong historical link to the original uprising.” The march began at Morris Isaacson School – the starting point on June 16 1976.

Speeches before the march centred on the legacy of 1976, Vally says, ‘with the demands that students were making then being compared to those today. The importance of free, quality, public education and the weaknesses of government reforms in education were emphasised. Early childhood development and Abet were also raised against the background that education needs to benefit society and not just the marketplace.”

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Vicki Robinson
Guest Author
David Macfarlane
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