Two glaring and quite possibly fatal problems with the school infrastructure norms that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga gazetted last week must surely rivet our attention, even while the understandable jubilation that their bitterly contested and long-awaited publication has ignited continues.
The first problem concerns the ability of provincial education departments to perform the extremely painstaking, expert and pivotal role the new regulations assign to them. The second flows from the first: the accountability mechanisms the regulations outline for official compliance are, even with a generous reading, fuzzy at best.
This is not to suggest that there is nothing to celebrate. The key civil society player here, rights organisation Equal Education, has every reason to assess this development as a "victory", following as it does four years of legal and activist pressure on Motshekga to deliver on promises she serially failed to keep.
The measure of this victory lies in the sheer quality of the new document. Unlike her ludicrously vacuous first attempt in January, these regulations are densely and richly detailed (see "Motshekga’s milestone").
They also show tangible evidence of her constructive response to the public comment that she invited on the draft regulations she released in September, perhaps most importantly in shortening some of the draft’s very lengthy implementation deadlines.
However, eight pages into this substantial document, the first implementation problem becomes apparent: within a year from now, MECs "must … provide the minister with ‘plans’ for implementation".
These must include detail on the "backlogs" each province now finds in its schools relative to the new norms; "costed short-, medium- and long-term plans with targets"; how new schools will be planned and maintained; and proposals concerning "procurement, implementation and monitoring".
The blunt question here is: Can each province really do all this? Post-1994 implementation of education policy has been repeatedly tripped up by gross provincial failures in each and every one of the areas in which these new "plans" will need to show something like a Rolls-Royce performance.
The Limpopo textbook debacle pitilessly exposed that province’s poor budgeting and planning capacities and the national department’s abysmal lack of monitoring.
Gross mismanagement in the Eastern Cape has produced about a decade of (ongoing) litigation centred on both appointing and paying teachers.
These are extreme examples, and one would expect the richer and more organised departments, such as Gauteng and the Western Cape, to produce better plans than most of the other seven. But we surely cannot be content with regulations that merely deepen and perpetuate long-standing inequities between rich and poor.
Beyond that, history continues to show that none of the nine provinces has a spotless record in the one area that will be absolutely essential to successful implementation of the new infrastructure norms, namely full and accurate data on every school.
The regular official reason for incorrect textbook deliveries to schools countrywide – that provincial data on pupil numbers, languages of teaching and subject choices is flawed – is merely one of the more visible manifestations of this systemic problem.
The new regulations require that, after submitting their year-one plans, MECs must report to the minister annually on implementation thereafter. But this measure will be toothless if the provincial plans are flawed to start with, and if the national department fails to hike its own monitoring performance up to levels never yet achieved in Motshekga’s five years as minister.
All this naturally raises the question of how noncompliance will be dealt with. To this, the Government Gazette devotes merely a short section called "Dispute resolution", which alludes to existing legislation that would be used to settle any arguments about implementation.
But this is just fuzzy, most obviously because it is not clear from the regulations how instances of noncompliance will reliably come to any official attention in the first place. This is, once again, a monitoring problem and the gazetted document shows little evidence of even recognising it.
In brief, it looks as though Equal Education’s and the general public’s job is far from done: If they do not help ensure compliance, who will?
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s 28-pages of newly gazetted minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure include:
– Replacing “all schools built entirely from mud, as well as those schools built entirely from materials such as asbestos, metal and wood”, within three years;
– Providing “all schools that do not have access to any form of power supply, water supply or sanitation” with these services within three years;
– Implementing the new norms on “electricity, water, sanitation, electronic connectivity and perimeter security” within seven years, and those on “libraries and laboratories for science, technology and life sciences” within 10 years; and
– Ensuring that a range of other requirements, such as the number of square metres allocated per pupil, are met by December 31 2030. – David Macfarlane