/ 28 September 2012

Rich school, poor school – the great divide persists

Bomvini Primary School in the Eastern Cape.
Bomvini Primary School in the Eastern Cape.

The juxtaposition of “tree schools” (schools without classrooms or basic services) against the former model C (historically white) schools, with their Olympic-sized pools, multiple sports fields and well-equipped laboratories and libraries, highlights the enduring infrastructure disparity in South Africa’s public schools.

Between these extremes there exists a wide spectrum of schools, from traditional mud structures and township schools to urban and suburban schools. Many of the latter also function in states of disrepair, but receive lower state allocations than they should. This is because such schools are incorrectly perceived as serving middle-class communities, when in reality they accommodate poor pupils who make a sometimes considerable daily commute from township to suburb.

Under apartheid, the school a pupil attended was determined by race. Today, it is determined by what a family can afford. A current legal case being brought by the non-governmental organisation Equal Education aims to reduce the infrastructural disparity between poor and middle-class schools and thereby move the country a step closer to the promise of equal opportunities in education.

Apartheid education was characterised by gross inequalities in the financing of education. Although  this was reflected in all areas of school funding, the legacy of these policies is most visible in school infrastructure. Although there have been incremental improvements since 1994, these have been insufficient to address the huge backlogs that continue to exist.

Not conducive to learning: The decrepit buildings (above and below) that house Menziwa High School in the Eastern Cape. Photos: Gillian Benjamin

According to the latest national education infrastructure management study released by the department of basic education in 2011, there are 24 793 ordinary public schools. It showed that:

•    3 544 schools have no electricity supply and 804 an unreliable electricity supply;

•    2 402 schools have no water supply and 2 611 an unreliable one;

•    913 schools do not have any ablution facilities, and 11 450 still use pit-latrine toilets;

•    2 703 schools have no fencing;

•    79% are without any library and only 7% have stocked libraries;

•    85% have no laboratory and only 5% have stocked laboratories;

•    77% are without any computer centres and only 10% have stocked computer centres; and

•    17% of schools lack any sporting facilities.  

Other studies indicate that there is a direct correlation between the wealth of a school and its outcomes, so pupils in well-resourced schools perform better than their counterparts in the poorest quintiles. Given that pupils in the least well-off schools are mainly black, educational outcomes therefore have a clear race and class dimension.

The post-apartheid policy framework for basic education has committed itself to the “redress of past injustices in educational provision” and to upholding the rights of all schoolgoers. Despite this, policies reflect a dissonance with these objectives and instead appear to display a subtext that favours fiscal austerity. This is reflected in several areas of policy and provisioning.

Until 2005, the charging of fees at all schools made education unaffordable for many children. But the amendments that introduced fee-free schooling at the poorest schools, while ameliorating some of their hardships, have largely relegated poor pupils to a substandard education.

Similarly, the limited pro-poor targeting measures for the funding of non-personnel items such as textbooks, stationery and other equipment have proved inadequate in equipping the poorest schools.

In 2008, acknowledging the link between poor infrastructural conditions and poor pupil outcomes, the education department published its draft national minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. The introduction of these draft norms were largely supported because of their perceived potential for improving the quality of education. However, their status remained uncertain for a long time, despite the expectation based on ministerial undertakings that they would be promulgated into law.

This prompted Equal Education to institute an application to compel the minister to promulgate regulations passing the norms into law, and the case will be heard in the Bhisho High Court in November.

The organisation’s application provides an overview of the plight of under-resourced schools across South Africa, the systemic impact that poor infrastructure has on schools and the necessity for an urgent and effective policy intervention.  

For example, it lists the experiences of schools that are structurally unsafe, forcing teaching to happen outside, which in turn leads to high rates of absenteeism because of bad weather or illness.

It highlights the impact of severe overcrowding on teaching and learning in the classroom. It also relates the indignity of pupils and teachers who are left with no choice but to use open toilets or unhygienic pit latrines, as well as the vulnerability of unfenced schools to surrounding criminal elements.

Poor infrastructure at Menziwa High School in the Eastern Cape. (Gillian Benjamin)

Equal Education argues that the minister is obliged by the policy framework to “provide a legal standard and mechanism” for the government to fulfil its constitutional obligation of providing an “adequate” basic education. Such a legal standard would then guide provinces in planning and budgeting for infrastructural developments. It would also serve as benchmark to which provinces and national government can be held accountable.

In response, the department of basic education maintains that it is at the minister’s discretion whether or not to promulgate regulations and that Minister Angie Motshekga has opted instead to issue guidelines relating to planning for school infrastructure. These guidelines, unlike the norms, are not law and are therefore neither binding nor enforceable.  

The department’s rationale for opting for the guidelines is that provinces have “different budgetary constraints and priorities, and have different approaches and ideas for dealing with various situations”. According to the department, the norms would impose a degree of stringency on provinces, whereas  the guidelines facilitate flexibility.

Yet the department, by its own admission, has experienced problems within provincial administrations in respect of “inadequate prioritisation, planning and budgetary provision for the improvement of infrastructure”. In Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, this has meant the national government assuming managerial control of the respective provincial authorities. But these are exactly the type of issues that the establishment of binding and enforceable norms to guide provinces would remedy.

The department justifies the decision not to adopt the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure by arguing that the Constitution’s right to basic education is limited to the most “basic” provisioning, that the obligation does not entail more than “improving standards and facilities … progressively over time” and that all of this is subject to “budgetary constraints and available resources”.

The Constitutional Court has already indicated that this approach is incorrect. In Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School  & Another vs Ahmed Asruff Essay NO and Others, “basic” is defined as referring to a particular level of education rather than the level of provisioning prescribed by the Constitution. The judgment also makes clear that the right is subject to “immediate” rather than “progressive” realisation.

Noteworthy, too, is the point made by Equal Education, that those governmental structures tasked with budgeting and planning, such as the Financial and Fiscal Commission, support the adoption of norms because measures such as bulk purchases for infrastructural development would be more cost-efficient than individual requisitions.

Although policy choices remain an executive prerogative, these choices must be consistent with the Constitution. In this context, policy must give effect to the rights of learners to receive an adequate basic education. A weakness of the education department’s guidelines is that they establish no enforceable minimum standards for the safety or functionality of schools, nor do they set timeframes for delivery.  

Under these circumstances, where many South African schools are faced with the threat of collapsing or nonexistent structures, we cannot be certain that the most urgent needs of pupils will be addressed. As such, the guidelines threaten to become yet another lame-duck measure.

Government’s backtracking on the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure is, as a result, extremely disappointing.

Faranaaz Veriava is a human rights lawyer. This is the third in her monthly series on the meaning and implications of the right to basic education

• The first two can be found online at mg.co.za/educationrights