Making districts a key support

The national education department has identified district offices as key instruments in its pursuit of improving the quality of education, said Palesa Tyobeka, deputy director general for general education and training.

She said district offices are “rofessional support vehicles “primarily established to support schools to provide quality education”.

Since taking office, Education Minister Naledi Pandor has set up a district development unit to “intensify support to districts and ensure adequate capacity to support schools from districts”.

But before schools can benefit from these interventions, said Tyobeka, a few issues have to be ironed out.

The first is to come up with a common understanding of what a district should be. Secondly, a policy is required to guide the national departments resourcing of districts.

“In some provinces, districts are really a collection of education circuits, which would then provide a range of professional support services to schools,” said Tyobeka. “In other provinces these services are housed in this unit called a district and districts would themselves be the level closest to the schools (instead of circuits).”

She said the capacity of districts to service schools varies, both in quality and quantity, because of the effects of the past (apartheid) funding formula. The new provinces inherited schools from old homelands so departments of education and training face “immense backlogs” as they had to absorb high numbers of schools and this “takes long to clean up”.

Provinces have tried to deal with backlogs by employing more professionals as part of providing support to schools. But, Tyobeka said, this creates another dilemma as the bulk of these personnel are drawn from schools and this in turn robs schools of their most skilled and experienced teachers.

Schools have been complaining for some time about the haphazard and poor service delivery they receive from district offices. On the other hand, districts point a finger at their provincial departments, saying they dont provide them with essential resources such as transport, capacity and staff.

Tyobeka conceded that district’s complaints are “genuine”, but the problem has been to provide support in the absence of a policy framework. She said there are 79 districts and the provinces most affected by the lack of policy are Limpopo, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Northern Cape.

The district development unit is looking at finalising the necessary policy procedures, “which will include the basket of professional services that each district will be expected to offer to support schools,” said Tyobeka.

The unit has started to build capacity and to energise some districts to provide the required support despite the lack of cars and the huge numbers to be serviced. Tyobeka said the units focus has been to:

  • ensure that districts are up to date with all policies and understand them and can therefore support schools with their implementation;
  • provide them with the necessary content and pedagogical know-ledge in the areas they are responsible for; and
  • make sure they are supported through a range of NGO-driven, donor or government-funded projects that respond to their peculiar needs.

She said the department has incorporated “14 poorest districts”, through its quality improvement and development strategy to provide them with material and human resources so that they can “improve learning outcomes in critical areas. This was to ensure that the fate of learners in these districts is not held back because of the slower pace of policy processes.”

Not making the grade
Teachers expect district offices to have their fingers on the pulse about what is happening in the schools they serve. They want them to deliver a range of services such as curriculum support, teacher development, human and material resource provision and speedy responses to requests. But, according to educators interviewed by the Teacher, districts are not cracking it.

Shortcomings highlighted include poor responses to schools requests and long and tedious processing of subsidies to schools.

A primary school principal in Limpopo, who did not want to be named, said the level of service in her area had declined considerably. She attributed this to a lack of a coherent plan or coordination of activities.

It seems to me that officials at our district offices do not have a clue of what their responsibilities are. When we make a request, they either ignore them or hide behind bureaucracy to justify their failure to deliver, she said.

She said in the past district offices used to implement initiatives aimed at improving the functionality of schools and their academic successes. For instance, we used to have prizes or awards for best performing schools, learners and principals.

Madoda Madi, deputy principal at Thuto-Lesedi Secondary School in Vosloorus on Gautengs East Rand, lamented the lack of efficiency in delivery of support to schools. Madi said there must be constant and speedy service delivery of requests and this should be effected through district offices. — Thabo Mohlala

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