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Judge puts basic education department on tight leash

In yet another victory for law group Section27, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has not only agreed with the rights organisation that the basic department's catch-up plan for Limpopo pupils who did not receive textbooks is inadequate, but also ordered that a remedial plan must be implemented for them through next year as well.

On Thursday Judge Jody Kollapen ordered the department to provide the court with an affidavit by the end of this month that will "detail the ongoing support and catch-up that will be provided to the current grade 10 pupils throughout 2013".

Section27 returned to the court after the department failed to comply with two court orders that required it to devise a catch-up plan and deliver "all" textbooks to grades one, two, three and 10 pupils in Limpopo. Thousands of books remain outstanding.

Pupils in these grades needed new textbooks because they were starting a new curriculum, but they only got some of the books late in June after Section27 challenged the department in court.

The department, which took over the administration of the Limpopo education department in December last year, will not be held in contempt of court for failing to comply with Kollapen's previous orders.

Section27's advocate, Muzi Sikhakhane, told the court on Tuesday its application was rather about getting books to schools, although it was "self-evident [the department] had not complied" with the court orders.

A bone of contention
Despite finding common ground on Tuesday, the parties continued to differ on the form and adequacy of the catch-up plan. The department argued programmes it was offering, which included a week-long study camp under way as well as publishing and broadcasting revisions in the media, would be adequate.

However, Kollapen ruled that the plan had to include additional content-knowledge support for teachers and contact learning, in compliance with an order he gave on May 17.

The department had to "identify gaps and deficiencies of the October 2012 spring camp and how these would be addressed in the remainder of the 2012 school year", Kollapen ordered. The department also has to "set out the monitoring mechanism … for the implementation of the 2013 remedial support programme".

Kollapen also ordered that the department, by October 12, deliver the more than 70 000 textbooks still outstanding, in accordance with a binding agreement that Section27 and the department reached on Tuesday.

But it remained "distressing that a month from the end of the school year" there were still "outstanding issues", Kollapen said.

"We may not be able to accurately quantify the effect that this will have, but children certainly deserve better. What is required is captured in the Constitution — that public administration must be accountable and … respond to the needs of the people."

All textbooks for grades four, five, six and 11, in which the new curriculum is being phased in next year, should reach schools by December 15. But the department had to keep the court informed about whether it would achieve this, Kollapen ruled.

"To the extent that there remain textbooks to be delivered by December 15, the respondents will inform the court as to the steps that will be taken to ensure delivery of the remaining textbooks before the schools commence in January 2013," said Kollapen.

He also granted Section27 leave to approach the court again if it found that the department's catch-up plan was still not compliant with his orders and if textbooks were still outstanding after October 15.

Hope Mokgatlhe, the department's spokesperson, would not comment on the judgment.



Too little, too late

The catch-up plan for pupils affected by the textbooks crisis is too little, too late, embattled Limpopo school principals said this week and it could even place an extra burden on schools.

"Study guides can't replace textbooks … [and] are not useful for catching up," Tlakulani Secondary School principal Norman Manganyi told the Mail & Guardian.

"They contain chapters that were already dealt with at the beginning of the year. What we need to focus on is the work that was not done because we did not have textbooks."

Law group Section27's papers in this week's court case in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria state that the basic education department's "inadequate" catch-up plan for grade 10 pupils needs revision because it does not provide enough detail on extra classroom time for pupils and content-knowledge support for teachers. It also calls for a catch-up plan for foundation-phase pupils.

In its court papers, however, the department states that teachers do not have to rely on textbooks to teach the new curriculum because subject guides and workbooks play a "major role" in filling the gaps left by absent textbooks and inadequate teacher-content knowledge.

Grade 10 pupils have also attended a "spring boot camp" this week, it argues in the papers, but Manganyi said five days was not enough to catch up on the syllabus.

"Our teachers have already held about five Saturday classes unpaid and we will continue to do this right up until exams."

A principal of a high school in the Vhembe district said his teachers were "fine with the catch-up plan but we need more than five days, especially for a subject like mathematics".

Another principal at a primary school near Tzaneen said the teachers at the school had been working extra hours anyway to ensure that pupils were on track.

"We are used to working hard and suffering without resources by now," the principal said, pointing out that teachers had bought textbooks with their own money and photocopied them to give to their pupils. "A catch-up plan would just be a burden at this stage."

The University of the Witwaters-rand school of education's Bronwen Wilson-Thomson, who submitted an affidavit in support of Section27's bid for a revision of the catch-up plan, said such a plan would need to work with "teachers and teaching methods as well as content".

Principals told the M&G they feared speaking to the media or Section27 because the department had warned them against doing so.  

Basic education department spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi declined to comment.

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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.

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