Western Cape school closures row hots up

Protest opportunity: Pupils joined the ANC Youth League march in Cape Town this week. (David Harrison, MG)

Protest opportunity: Pupils joined the ANC Youth League march in Cape Town this week. (David Harrison, MG)

Civil society organisations this week threatened to take legal action and stage large-scale protests over the proposed closure of 27 Western Cape schools.

"We are consulting senior counsel on this matter and will probably go to court in the next two weeks," said Save Our Schools campaign organiser Magnus de Jongh.

The provincial education department announced earlier this year that it would close 27 schools in the province. It cited dwindling pupil numbers and underperformance, among other reasons.

"We will come out in our numbers against this for a 20 000-strong march early in September, which will end at Premier Helen Zille's office," De Jongh said.

Non-governmental organisation Equal Education is also "considering legal action".

"This is a serious issue," said the organisation's Yoliswa Dwane. "If the government goes ahead with closures of some of these schools then we will challenge them on that."

Addressing the root causes
The organisations claim the department is obliged to address the causes of problems such as dwindling numbers, poor facilities and under­performance before resorting to closure.

De Jongh said: "Almost no support was given by the department [at some schools].
For example, if a school [was given] additional teachers, maybe it would get the results the department wants to see."

Trade union federation Cosatu, the ANC in the province, religious forums, taxi associations and other non-governmental organisations are supporting the Save Our Schools campaign.

Closing down schools would "seriously compromise" the safety of some of the 4 000 pupils involved because they would have to walk further distances or use "dangerous" transport provided by the department, De Jongh said.

One example is the Denneprag Primary School, whose pupils would have to walk 9.8km a day to and from their new school on a road that had no barrier and no shoulder, he said.

"If the department goes ahead with closures, it will be violating … the Constitution, which states that the rights of a child are of paramount importance," De Jongh said.

A Group Areas Act situation
In cases where pupils attended schools outside the areas they lived in, as was the case with the Zonnebloem Nest Senior School near the Cape Town city centre, attended mostly by pupils from black and coloured townships, closing the schools would result in "pupils being barred from certain areas, creating a Group Areas Act situation".

The department was attempting to keep township pupils in the townships, De Jongh said.

On Monday, the ANC Youth League marched to Zille's office as part of continuing service delivery protests. The stopping of plans to close any schools was on the list of demands it handed over, said ANC Youth League Western Cape chairperson Khaya Yozi.

But provincial education department spokesperson Paddy Attwell said closing the schools would "improve opportunities for the learners concerned". He said the aim was to place them in schools that are better equipped to provide quality education.

Attwell dismissed the claim that the department had done nothing to help the underperforming schools, saying it "provided … extensive support and is continuing to do so".

"Most schools have responded very well to this support. For example, the number of high schools with matric pass rates of less than 60% dropped from 78 in 2011 to 30 in 2012, thanks to this support," Attwell said.

The number of public schools in South Africa has decreased by 9% between 2000 and 2011, from 26 789 to 24 365, according to a statement by the South African Institute of Race Relations.

A cause for alarm?
But this decline was "not necessarily a cause for alarm", said Jonathan Snyman, a researcher at the institute.

"The majority of public schools are underresourced and the closure or merging of smaller schools with dwindling pupil numbers helps to free up resources," Snyman said.

But tension remains high in the Western Cape and some principals said not enough had been done to address the root causes of the problems that result in underperformance.

Beauvallon High School principal Henry Hockey said: "Some of the learners who join our school in grade eight and even grade nine are basically illiterate and then our teachers are expected to perform miracles and help them pass.

"The department has not provided the resources, like extra teachers, to be able to deal with this, so of course we underperform … and then they want to shut us down."

Closing schools because of underperformance and substandard facilities when the department had not intervened adequately was highly problematic, Dwane said.

"Conducting standard whole-school evaluations does not count as an adequate intervention by the department.

Targeted interventions
"If a school is so bad that it is facing closure it needs specific, targeted interventions," Dwane said.

In the case of Zonnebloem Nest, citing underperformance in proposing its closure was "incorrect" because "last year the matric pass rate was 85%".

Also facing possible closure was Peak View Secondary School, which is in a semi-suburban area.

Dwane said closing the school would "restrict the movement of ­people, which is what the Group Areas Act was about".

The integration of cities was "crucial to the future of the country and a school in the city centre providing a reasonable quality education to township youth should be protected", Dwane said.

The department denied that it was trying to restrict pupils' movements and said it would "like to place learners in schools close to those that they are currently attending".

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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