Schools go to court

Bureaucratic sloth or unwillingness to apply the law is slowly strangling a number of schools in Gauteng. Now some are taking legal steps to force the Gauteng education department to do its job.

Wits University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) is representing five schools in Lenasia, near Jo’burg, which complain their state funding allocation is too low, and that they have made no headway with the authorities, despite regulations specifying how schools can ask for allocations to be reviewed.

The problem derives, ironically, from legislation meant to help poor pupils and parents. Since last year, provincial departments have had to place each school in one of five nationally determined poverty categories, called quintiles. Quintile one consists of the poorest 20% of schools; quintile five the most affluent.

The recommended state allocation per pupil in a quintile one school this year is R738; for a quintile five school, R123. The theory is that the higher the schools quintile ranking, the more able it is to raise substantial fee income.

The five Lenasia schools are all in quintiles four or five. This is because a schools ranking is determined by the relative poverty of its surrounding community, which depends on individual and household incomes. Statistics South Africa data is used to make determinations; and Lenasia is considered relatively well-off.

However, the five schools draw most of their pupils from extremely poor informal settlements and townships, not from Lenasia itself.

The principal of Impala Crescent Primary, Nazim Adams, said only five of the school’s 900 pupils come from the neighbouring area. About 15% are from Lenasia’s Extension 13, where unemployment is high, and 75% from Orange Farm, Thembelihle and Soweto.

The school charges R900 a year, but “as we keep having to raise fees, we have more applications for exemptions, and more pupil’s dont pay,” Adams said. “We’re not sending lawyer’s letters to parents for non-payment what can you take from people living in shacks?”

Adams said that in consequence, the school was having to curtail the number of employees. “We’ve no money for cleaning and maintenance. We’re surviving hand to mouth, and have to ask parents to pay for books and fees. But the parents can’t manage either.”

Seventeen of the 21 schools in the area have similar problems, said Yusuf Asmaljee, chairperson of the Lenasia School Governing Bodies Forum. “We’ve made countless submissions to the department, but it simply doesn’t respond.”

Cals advocate Faranaaz Veriava points out that government’s regulations specify how schools can apply to have their quintile ranking reviewed. “That’s all we’re asking the Gauteng department to do.”

Cals wrote to the department on behalf of the five schools in February, but merely received a standard letter acknowledging receipt. Last month, it wrote again, saying it had failed to contact officials it was told would handle the matter, despite numerous attempts. It added that it would take the department “and/or the officials…who are not doing their work to court.”

Veriava said the Lenasia schools’ financial problems are “systemic, not exceptional.”

“There are middle-of-the-range, middle-class schools across the country which draw pupils from very poor backgrounds. It’s a post-apartheid reality that parents choose schools with better resources, but these won’t maintain standards if their rankings don’t reflect pupils’ economic origins.

“The fact that we get no response from officials suggests education departments haven’t applied their minds on how to handle schools that use the legislation.”

Gauteng’s Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, did not respond to the M&G‘s faxed questions.

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