The standards that matter

The conditions in which schoolchildren learn and how their learning is measured will both come into sharp focus this month.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is due to file papers shortly in the Bisho High Court that explain why she will oppose Equal Education’s landmark application centred on school infrastructure.

And this week, the state’s quality-assurance body Umalusi tackled education standards it called “a challenge”. The organisation convened delegates from South Africa’s public-education spectrum for three days, starting on Thursday.

Umalusi’s most publicly visible role occurs once a year, when the basic education minister releases the annual matric results. But its state-defined function is year-long and far wider than the grade 12 final exam papers, their setting and marking, and the final marks the learners who wrote the exam carry into their diverse futures.

This grade 12, matric-related visibility alone would justify the subtitle of Umalusi’s conference this week: “The Challenge”.

Bristling challenges
But the other sectors whose assessment standards the body oversees pose at least similarly bristling challenges — lower school grades and much of what the 50 public further education and training (FET) colleges teach.

Umalusi has no power to determine the physical, infrastructural conditions in which any of the country’s 12-million children in about 25?000 public schools learn — but it has often commented on them. This power rests with the national government, the basic education ministry in particular.

To call that power vast, and those conditions crucial, is understatement on both counts.

Not the most sophisticated assessment methods and standards globally can eclipse the immediate learning problems caused by an exposed electrical wire above your head in your classroom or the rain pouring in as you follow the day’s maths lesson.

Legislation since 1994 makes it the national government’s responsibility to define and publish for all to see the minimum infrastructure standards in which schoolchildren learn and teachers teach.

The nine provincial governments have to meet these minimums — or face the wrath of, say, parents who can see the school their children attend has exposed electrical wires or classroom walls that dissolve into mud when it rains.

Parents’ legal rights
But can parents legally demand that the school, and their province’s education department, fix the wire and replace the mud walls with bricks and mortar?

This is one question Equal Education, the non-governmental organisation founded in 2008, is hoping the Bhisho High Court’s ruling to come will help to answer.

Specifically, its application to the court in March “seeks an order compelling Minister Motshekga to prescribe minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure”, Equal Education announced at the time.

“This is the most far-reaching court case about the right to basic education to have been launched in democratic South Africa,” it added.

It might well turn to this way. But since March the case has receded from publicly visible attention, not unlike Umalusi’s annual fading from the national stage a week or two after the release of the matric results every year.

Intense activity
For all the parties Umalusi oversees, intense activity continues all year round.

For all directly involved in the Equal Education application, concentrated activity has continued unabated since March.

In these legal preparations, the state attorney last month filed Motshekga’s notice of her intention to oppose the NGO’s application.

As of this week, it seemed likely that the date on which Motshekga, and another 12 respondents, might meet Equal Education in Bhisho would become known only next month.

What they will all say to each other if they do meet there is something most South African parents and their children would like to know.

More immediately, Umalusi holds its third and final day of the conference discussing education standards across the whole country on May 12.

Keep the powerful accountable

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David Macfarlane
Guest Author

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