The governments “no fee” policy has set alarm bells ringing at the country’s poorest schools, with some of them finding that they are now even poorer.
Since the start of the school year in January, their mounting financial difficulties have affected the supply of textbooks and stationery, the repair of school property and security services.
The government introduced its “no fee” policy last year for about 20% of pupils, but because of legislative delays it took effect only this year. There are now nearly 14 000 no-fee schools, accounting for 40% of the countrys pupils.
In theory, the government replaces the income that these schools used to collect from fees. The provinces “will allocate nearly R3-billion to no-fee schools for their non- personnel, non-capital expenditure needs,” Education Minister Naledi Pandor told Parliament in February.
But teacher unions and other educationists say some schools have not yet received their allocations from provincial departments, or have received less than their lost fee revenue.
“A significant number of schools across the country are experiencing both problems,” said Don Pasquallie, deputy general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). Like other educationists, he could not estimate the scale of the problem, but said it is an “issue of real concern”.
“The education department should have asked each school how much it raised in fees,” said John Maluleke, Sadtu’s national treasurer. “The amounts some are receiving for services such as security, which they used to fund from fees, are a “slap in the face,” he said. Maluleke was concerned that services in some township schools might collapse.
The introduction of no-fee schools follows the national education departments review of schooling cost’s in 2003. It found that fees were a significant burden for many poor pupils and that some schools used illegal measures, such as withholding report cards or denying admission, against those who could not pay.
Following the review, the department established five “poverty distribution” categories, ranked from poorest to least poor, in which all schools are placed. It also determined allocations that schools should receive for each pupil, these amounts being affected by which poverty category a school is in.
But questions are now being asked about both the per-pupil allocations and the poverty categories into which schools are divided. Salim Vally of the Education Rights Project at Wits University said the project has received reports from no-fee schools in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape about having less revenue now than before.
“There is something wrong with the per-learner allocations,” he said, questioning how the department had calculated these allocations. Dave Balt, president of the National Professional Teacher’s Organisation of South Africa, said the allocations constitute “a critical issue that needs to be researched”.
Pasquallie said Sadtu has received reports about different schools in the same socio-economic area being classified differently as fee or no-fee institutions. “Something is wrong with the categorising of schools,” he said.
The education department’s director general, Duncan Hindle, said he did not believe any no-fee school should be receiving less than when it collected fees. The 2003 review found that about 70% of schools were charging fees of less than R100, well below the minimum per-pupil allocation of about R550, he said.
“I would be glad to be told of any school which is in this situation [of receiving less money now],” Hindle said. “If so, it should probably not have been declared a no-fee school.”
On the province’s late payments to schools, he said it is a transitional problem “during this first year of implementation. Previously, schools used fees as a cushion, pending their departmental allocations, [but] this year they have been caught short”. Provinces have now made “contingency arrangements to ensure all schools have ready cash available”.
But the problem remained “large-scale in every province,” said George Boinamo, education spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance, who recently raised the matter in Parliament.
“Pandor was too hasty in announcing no-fee schools before making funds available to provinces,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
Textbooks and stationery are in short supply at some schools as a result.
Hindle said he has asked the Auditor General “to conduct a performance audit of provincial compliance in regard to school allocations – are schools informed of their allocations on time, are they paid on time, do they get what they are due?”
He added that “this will hopefully assist in understanding and rectifying any problems schools have”.
Allocations too little, too late
Principals of two primary schools in Soshanguve, north-west of Pretoria, say they have been forced to cut back severely on essential services because they no longer charge school fees and have less revenue than when they did.
The principals spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the education department bars its employees from speaking to the media without official permission. Several others who expressed similar misgivings also refused to speak on the record.
As part of the new policy, each school should receive R24 000 per year for day-to-day expenses such as security, the transport of sick pupils to clinics and reimbursement for staff travelling to workshops. But even though the schools serve very poor communities, fees previously raised between R100 000 and R120 000 for such expenses, they say.
The R24 000, which they have yet to receive, “is not even a drop in the ocean and will be exhausted within two months,” said Peter Mabunda (not his real name), whose school used to charge fees of R180 a year. “We are surviving on the money we received last year and, once this is depleted, I do not know how we are going to survive.”
He said the department did provide funding for maintenance, textbooks, rates, water and electricity, but “these are not the only things we need to function as a school”.
The other principal, Mokone Monakalo (not his real name), said allocations to his school “are usually deposited late”, so that if they have to depend entirely on these “everything will come to a halt”.
Monakalo’s school used to charge R100 a year in fees. Because poverty is rife in the local community, the school cannot appeal to parents to make voluntary contributions, he said.
The schools fear that services such as security, auditing of their books, training of administrative staff, transporting of staff to essential meetings and pupils travel to sport and cultural activities will be affected.
Mabunda said he supports the no-fees school policy, but insists principals of the affected schools should have been consulted. “We would not have stopped the policy from being implemented, but certainly we would have suggested constructive and better ways in which this could have been handled.”
Both principals said they do not know who to approach about their difficulties, as there are no clear channels of communication with the government. They would have to launch “vigorous fundraising initiatives” to stay afloat.