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Adult education fails its teachers

On the outskirts of Mitchell’s Plain in the Western Cape a night school will next month shut its doors after 48 years, because its funding has allegedly fallen in the crack between two government departments.

In a small ceremony on July 3, the staff at Steenberg Adult Learning Centre will hand out certificates to its final batch of adult students, have a small party to wish them well, and then close down.

Several adult education centres in other parts of the country are facing the same fate. And hundreds of teachers at centres like these are wrestling with growing debt and eviction from their homes because they have not received their salaries.

Salaries dried up as a result of the chaos caused by a messy transition of the adult education sector from provincial education departments to the department of higher education and training on April 1.

“The tranches for levels [that are equivalent to grades 10 to 12] stopped last year when the transition to the higher education department started, and without that money we can’t carry on,” said Steenberg’s centre manager, Sammy Williams.

“The problem is widespread. Over 50 years of working in this sector you build up a network. I know about five centres that are going to shut down in the southern Western Cape, and three that have shut down already,” he said.

The centres assist adults who dropped out of school and are looking for ways to complete their education. The South African Abet (adult basic education and training) Educators Union says about 17 000 teachers service such centres.

The November 2014 draft national policy on community colleges says that according to the 2011 national census, more than two million adults attend Abet centres, also known as night schools, or technical, vocational and training colleges.

The policy gives guidance on how the responsibility for adult education should move from provincial education departments to the department of higher education and training.

The government ultimately wants to establish district-based community colleges that will service all adult education and vocational needs, according to the policy document. But while it phases this in, current Abet centres will be merged into nine interim community colleges – one in each province.

A teacher at Steenberg, Nigel Prinsloo, said effective direction for the transition had not been given at centre management meetings.

“When we heard about the transition, managers started asking: ‘How can we plan for this?’ They were promised that the tranches would continue, but that never materialised.”

Steenberg’s governing body predicted that its funding might never materialise. It looked at what it had in its coffers, worked out how much longer it would need to stay open until its current students achieved all the credits they needed, and divided the money it had left into reduced salaries for its teachers.

But other teachers haven’t been so lucky. In the Western Cape, four teachers at the Elsies River Secondary Adult Learning Centre have not been paid since April.

One of them, Mara Geduld, said she had received one month’s salary last Monday but had not received communication from either department regarding outstanding payments for the other two months.

When asked how she got by without her usual income she said, “My family and friends and neighbours bought me food. I just made sure I had R12 every day for the taxi … My landlady was getting tense.”

Geduld said she and her colleagues had phoned the higher education department’s toll-free number, and sent emails to addresses they found on its website, to try to find out what was going on.

“If it wasn’t for our educators phoning the toll-free number – because our managers and higher people haven’t told us anything – we wouldn’t know anything.

“The [department of higher education and training] said it will sort it out but I don’t know what I will do if this problem carries on, that’s the scary thing,” Geduld said.

A centre manager in the Northern Cape, Thenjiwe Pienaar, said she had calls from seven fellow educators across the province to say that they had not been paid since April.

She manages the Sabelo Hanover Adult Learning Centre and has received her salary, but one educator at her centre has not.

“I have pain for these educators,” she said.

“Their banks are phoning them every day, landlords are chasing them away … one of my educators was sick from the stress.”

The Eastern Cape is reportedly even worse off. Mkululi Vava, the province’s South African Abet Educators Union chairperson, said he knew of at least 23 teachers who had not been paid, some of them since last year.

“People don’t have anything to sustain themselves. Some of the learners at the centres will help the teachers with R200 or R100 for food or taxi fare just so they can come and teach so the learners don’t get left behind with the work,” he said.

“Some centres have not received funding either. Sometimes they don’t even get the money for stationery. But some have convinced communities to assist at least with pens and paper.”

The changes to the sector are part of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s big plan to give all

South Africans who don’t have a place in universities the opportunity to learn.

According to the 2011 national census, about three million people between the ages of 18 and 24 are not in employment, education or training.

The education department’s spokesperson, Khaye Nkwanyana, confirmed that thousands of teachers had not been paid, including 6 000 in KwaZulu-Natal.

The reasons for this differed from province to province, he said. In the Western Cape, teachers were “privately employed” at centres so the department has had to appoint them as state employees. In the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, the provincial education departments did not process the correct documentation by April 1.

But the department’s human resources team is “working overtime” to ensure that KwaZulu-Natal teachers are paid in the next three weeks and a rapid response team has been established to attend to any queries that come in, Nkwanyana said.


No more second chances

“I’ve got a young lady standing in front of me here who is going to have to go to a private college to finish her matric and pay thousands of rands,” the Steenberg Adult Learning Centre manager, Sammy Williams, said this week. 

He posted a Facebook message about the imminent closure and friends and family replied with disbelief. 

“We’re in the heart of Steenberg and people could afford to come to us.” He said some people who had completed their education at the centre had gone on to be doctors, lawyers and even serve in Parliament. 

“People will remember it as a place of second chances.” 

The spokesperson for the department of higher education and training (DHET), Khaye Nkwanyana, says the department knew about the imminent closure and attributed it to “low funding for Abet [adult basic education and training] levels 1 to 4 [grades 1 to 9], the lack of funding for matric classes being the biggest contributing factor, and uncertainty with regards to the transfer to DHET.” 

He said, however, that the lack of funding to the Steenberg centre “is not related to the funding for operational activities” and that the centre had, in fact, received about R111 000 in funding for 2014-2015 and a little more than R131 000 in 2015-2016. 

Williams denies this, saying the centre received about R70 000 last year and no funding at all this year. “If we had received that kind of money we wouldn’t have to close,” he said. – Victoria John

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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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