/ 17 July 2014

School infrastructure: How NGOs are planning to get the message across

According to the basic education department's latest statistics
According to the basic education department's latest statistics

South Africa is notorious for having great policies but poor implementation. So when you have thousands of schools without electricity, water, or even toilets, how do you monitor the implementation of a national plan that states exactly what infrastructure every single school should have? 

“It’s a massive undertaking but as Equal Education [EE] we don’t see ourselves as doing this work alone. We are partnering with other organisations and reaching out to parents, teachers and pupils to inform them of the norms and what the commitments of provincial education departments are. [That way], the people themselves can hold their government to account,” EE’s general secretary, Brad Brockman, said on Tuesday. 

He was speaking to the Mail & Guardian at this week’s norms and standards implementation conference jointly organised by nongovernmental organisations Equal Education, Section27, Equal Education Law Centre and the Legal resources Centre. 

After a four-year campaign, including repeated court action and protests, EE won its battle to force Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to publish norms and standards for school infrastructure – a document that says what the classrooms, toilets, electricity and security, among others, should be like at every single school. 

Motshekga published the norms on November 29 last year and provincial education departments have until the same day this year to publish their implementation plans for the norms.

Next phase
After a brief celebration of their victory, EE prepared themselves for the next phase in their struggle for better school infrastructure – the “20-year long” part of ensuring that provincial education departments adhere to the norms, Brockman said. 

One of the first steps it took was organising this conference that aimed to develop a shared strategy by civil society to monitor and support implementation. 

Attendees presented feedback from group discussions about what should be part of the strategy, and this revealed some interesting ideas. 

These included using mobile technology to build awareness about the norms, like putting a line at the bottom of a Please Call Me SMS saying something like: “Call this number if your school does not have water …”, said one presenter. 

Street corners and shebeens
Attendees suggested using media (particularly community newspapers), posters, pamphlets and bumper stickers to get the message across. “We can rope in traditional healers, soccer clubs, street corner guys, go into shebeens,” said another to much laughter. “You laugh but we [need] to go to places you wouldn’t think of [usually],” he said straight-faced. 

Civil society would need to do door-to-door campaigns and hold workshops with pupils, teachers, parents, school governing bodies and teacher unions. They considered approaching organisations, such as churches, that already had well-established networks to disseminate the message. 

One of the attendees even suggested putting up a notice board on the outside of a school with numbers on it for the government official and contractor responsible for the infrastructure improvements at that school. 

This is no simple task, however, and is made harder by problems like inadequate statistics and intimidation.

Measuring progress
Brockman said the most recent national statistics for school infrastructure come from the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) of 2011, which state that 3 544 schools have no electricity, 2 402 have no water supply, and 11 450 have pit toilets, among other statistics. 

“How can we measure progress if we don’t have an updated infrastructure audit?” he said. “We’ve written to provincial education departments to find out what their situation is … we need to make sure that the figures they are basing their [November] plans on are correct. We need to verify these figures … ” 

Spokesperson for the basic education department Elijah Mhlanga confirmed that these are indeed the latest figures.

“Subsequent to the publishing of the report, the department went on an extensive update of the database. A service provider was appointed and the assessments were completed in May 2014 … On completion of the electronic upload and verification, standard NEIMS reports will be made available on the [department] website by August 2014,” he said. 

Zukiswa Kota, researcher at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) told the M&G that although there had been improvements in access to information in the province, the Eastern Cape was still an example of how inaccurate information can hamper progress. 

Obvious implications
“There is still inadequate, up-to-date data relating to the location, status and enrolment numbers of schools that exist within the province. In some instances, the updating of the registry of schools that have been closed or merged or whose learner numbers have changed radically is delayed, which has obvious implications for planning and service delivery,” she said. 

But the province’s education spokesperson, Loyiso Pulumani, denied this, saying, “In 2012/13, MEC Mandla Makupula commissioned a comprehensive audit of all the critical elements that make up the department … [and] we now possess an up-to-date verified database”. 

Attorney at Section27, Nikki Stein, said another “enormous obstacle” to the delivery of any aspect of basic education in South Africa was intimidation. 

“In our work on textbooks [and other education issues] we got calls from anonymous sources saying ‘this is what’s happening at my schools but don’t tell anyone in the department [that I said it] because I will get victimised’,” she said. 

Intimidation came in different forms, she said, but people were scared of coming forward for fear of losing their jobs or other harm. 

‘Undermining rights of learners’
“We know that some principals have been disciplined for issues that appear unrelated to the thing we are trying to fix, but we know they are linked.” 

While trying to ensure Limpopo schools had the textbooks they need, she said she had heard that departmental officials had specifically told teachers and principals that they would be “dealt with” if they spoke to Section27. 

“Intimidation has a deterrent effect on the delivery of any aspect of basic education and has a big effect of undermining rights of learners.” 

On the quality of the provincial plans to be submitted by November 29, Mhlanga said the department will “assess the [provincial] plans to check compliance with the norms and standards”.  

” … Where plans do not meet the required standards, funding can be withheld,” he said.  He said provinces were obliged to report quarterly and annually to the minister on their progress on implementation.