Law 'should force govt to act' on education crisis

The crisis of inequality across schools is so extreme that legislation should be amended to force the government to set minimum infrastructure standards, Parliament was told last week.

Together with teacher unions, school governing bodies and the Commission for Gender Equality, the Cape Town-based NGO Equal Education spoke at the basic education portfolio committee’s public hearings on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill on Monday February 15.

The NGO told the portfolio committee the South African Schools Act and the Bill’s proposed amendments “both fall short”. The Act says the minister “may” prescribe minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, school capacity (regarding number of learners) and teaching support materials.

The Act also lists what such minimum standards “must” provide for, Equal Education’s parliamentary liaison representative, Dmitri Holtzman, told the committee.
“Regarding school infrastructure,” he said, “this list includes classrooms, electricity, water, sanitation, libraries, laboratories and computers.”

But that legal obligation on the minister arises only if she/he “elects to pass such minimum norms and standards”, Equal Education’s submission to the committee said. But “it is insufficient that permissive language is used in this instance”.

This was because of a “crisis of inequality” in which thousands of schools across the country were still plagued by poor infrastructure, the NGO said. “Over 4 000 schools have no (or unreliable) access to electricity; almost 1 000 schools are without ablution facilities and nearly 2 000 schools have no water or sanitation facilities; less than 8% of schools have functioning school libraries and there are still 400 ‘mud schools’ in existence,” it said.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Holtzman said: “The ministry has acknowledged the link between school infrastructure and learner performance, so we don’t see any reason that the amendment should not be adopted. If the clause allowing for minimum norms and standards was inserted into the Act in 2007, why has there still been no positive action on this front?”

“Our concern is that the decision to amend the Bill will be influenced by the fiscal implications. It will have a direct effect on the department’s budget and will set a legally binding standard for the department to be held to account, so they might not want to open themselves up to that,” said Holtzman.

Hope Malgas of the ANC, who chairs the basic education portfolio committee, said before adjourning the meeting that all proposals it had received would be “revisited” before the committee decided what would be in the Bill.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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