Overflowing schools turn their backs on unwanted pupils

Almost 50 children in Thembelihle, an informal settlement southwest of Johannesburg, are yet to begin schooling this year, as public schools in the neighbouring Lenasia won’t accept them.

Three primary schools and a high school in Lenasia have excluded pupils, all citing full capacity in their classes. The learners were turned away last Wednesday when schools reopened and have since been marching to schools, most of them in full uniform, with their parents.

“Like any other children, I wear my uniform every morning hoping that I’ll go to class. But I can’t go to school since I was turned away on Wednesday. The school said there’s no space for me, but I applied in August,” said Refilwe Chobeka, who’s supposed to start grade nine.

Many parents have told the Mail & Guardian they registered their children within the registration period, but claim they are now being denied access to the schools because they didn’t pay registration fees. The parents say their children are being excluded over lacking registration documents and because they cannot speak English and Afrikaans.

“Four days after schools reopened there are still plus or minus 50 children here still not in classes. Over half of those are children who are supposed to be starting grade one,” said Siphiwe Mbatha, a community organiser from the Thembelihle Crisis Committee.

The M&G understands that the community is still waiting for correspondence over a meeting where a Gauteng education department official promised she would organise with school principals this week.

An administration officer in one primary school told the M&G they put children on waiting lists because classes are full. “We’ve had lots of parents coming here wanting to register their children. But we don’t have space. If we accept more children we’ll end up having 50 children per class, which is not good,” she said.

The school now has between 42 and 45 learners in some classes.

A primary school principal said he handles with suspicion the allegation given by many parents that their children were turned away over registration fees. “Our school doesn’t do that. But you won’t be so sure with schools in affluent neighbourhoods here,” he said.

He blames late registration for admission problems in Thembelihle, which are not new. The M&G reported in February 2011 that about 60 children were still without schools in the first week of that month. Bhayzer Miya, a leader in Thembelihle Crisis Committee, said it has been a problem for more than a decade.

The M&G met three teenagers who were not attending school in 2011 and have been excluded again this year. Two of them said they did not find places in January last year, while another arrived in Thembelihle in April — four months after the schooling year began — and couldn’t be accepted in a school.

“Last year we had many children who were not in school, we can’t allow that to happen again this year,” said Mbatha.

Gauteng education department spokesperson Charles Phahlane said it wouldn’t help the community to march to schools seeking admission for children, adding that they must rather communicate with the department. “We have said if you’re looking for space go to district offices and not schools. We don’t handle late applications in schools.”

In December, the South Gauteng High Court ruled that school governing bodies in Gauteng do not have the power to determine admission policy at state schools and found that the provincial education department should have the final say.

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