/ 29 March 2022

‘Tough love’ budget cuts are toughest on the poorest learners

High School Students In Ndevana, South Africa
Many learners in the Eastern Cape have not received stationery and textbooks because of budget shortfalls. (Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

On 19 January, schools opened for the 2022 academic year in the Eastern Cape. At this time, the Eastern Cape department of education had not delivered stationery and textbooks, paid teaching and general assistants for November and December 2021, paid scholar transport providers, and failed to fill many vacant teaching posts. 

Many learners were without teachers, textbooks, stationery and transport. In Makhanda, some schools were shut down by parents to force the department to pay the assistants. By March 2022, it became clear that the department had also failed to pay catering staff at hostels in the province, leaving these learners without food. 

This bumbling start follows two years of disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, in which learners lost an estimated 1.3 years of schooling.  

Textbooks and stationery were not delivered at the end of the previous academic year as they should have been. On 12 January 2022, the department issued a memorandum to schools in the Eastern Cape advising them that they would only receive stationery between late January and the end of February 2022. The memorandum stated that textbooks would only be delivered to schools between March and May 2022. Schools were encouraged to make use of stationery purchased in 2021, a ridiculous proposal given that the stationery provided in 2021 was far from adequate to meet the needs of the learners. 

The department blames budgetary constraints for the delay in the delivery of stationery and textbooks. Thembani Mtyida, the acting deputy director for institutional operations management, informed schools that “the unprecedented budget shortfall affected the delivery of learner teacher support material (LTSM) both in terms of adhering to the nationally prescribed timelines and also the timeous determination of quantities of LTSM per grade per child.” In December 2021, the department of basic education and provincial treasury provided some funding for stationery and textbooks but suppliers were already closing for the holiday period, and the Eastern Cape education department could only resume procurement processes in January 2022. 

The budget shortfall also meant that schools would not be receiving all textbooks ordered for 2022, and they would only receive a “minimum resource pack” for stationery. Schools that have received stationery have indicated that the stationery pack is smaller than in the past and will not last the learners for the full academic year. Parents and schools will have to find money to supplement the stationery.

At Alfonso Arries Primary School in Gqeberha, a no-fee school, the school is spending R23 000 a month making photocopies of their available textbooks to ensure that learners have access to textbook content. This money is being taken from the school nutrition budget to pay for something the state should have provided, and which the state included in the school’s budget when calculating the school’s operating costs in terms of the National Norms and Standards for School Funding. 

Parents, most of whom are unemployed and rely on social grants, had to fork out money at the beginning of the 2022 academic year to buy stationery and paper for photocopies for their children, leaving them with less money for food and clothes. Since its establishment in 2012, the school has struggled with textbook shortages. In grade 6, there are only 11 mathematics textbooks, eight English first additional language books, and 12 social science books. The school has 220 learners in grade 6. 

On 15 March 2022, the Legal Resources Centre, acting on behalf of the Khula Development Forum in Peddie, obtained an order in the Makhanda high court compelling the Eastern Cape education department to deliver all textbooks and stationery by 31 March 2022. This was the first time a South African court declared stationery to be part of the right to basic education, a significant development that further clarifying the state’s role in providing education resources.  

The failure by the department to provide textbooks and stationery is just one tragic result of wide-ranging cuts to social spending by the government in recent years. In November 2021, the Budget Justice Coalition released a position paper on trends in education funding. It found that the total government expenditure for basic education is decreasing, with 14.8% of the consolidated budget being spent on education in 2017-18, compared with 13.4% in 2021-22. This is also reflected in the rate of growth of basic education funding — it is projected that between 2019-22 and 2023-24, the basic education budget will shrink by 8.6% once inflation is taken into account.  

The effect on per-learner expenditure is even more pronounced, with a drop of 13.1% over the same period. This is mainly because of increasing learner numbers in schools, while the overall budget is shrinking. In real terms (accounting for inflation) the state will spend 13.1% less on every child in 2023 than it did in 2019. Equally alarming is that the national treasury’s 2022 budget review anticipates that “… slow growth of 1.9% on compensation of employees in basic education over the medium term will result in fewer teachers and increased class sizes in some provinces”.  What the minister has referred to as a “tough love budget” is likely to hit the poorest learners the hardest. 

In the Eastern Cape, the Norms and Standards for school funding were reduced from R1544 a learner a year in 2020, to R870 a learner in 2021, and R993 in 2022. This retrogressive measure has seen the budget per learner almost halved in the period of a year. While Covid-19 pandemic emergency funding resulted in reductions to certain programmes, it is not at all clear why the Eastern Cape’s per learner cuts have been so much more severe than other provinces.

In his 2022 State of the Province address, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane admitted that financial instability at the department contributes to poor quality education, non-payment of service providers and budget cuts. Although the premier committed the provincial government to “resourcing learning and teaching for improved learner attainment”, there has been no concrete articulation of how this will be achieved and little evidence of resourcing on the ground. The Public Service Accountability Monitor has highlighted the adverse effects of late or non-delivery of water tanks and personal protective gear to schools. This, combined with medium term reductions to school infrastructure budgets, personnel budgets, and low access to information, communication and technology learning facilities (12.5%) makes for a dire mix. It is especially worrying that the 2021-22 budget for learner teacher support material in the Eastern Cape was 37.5% lower than the 2019-20 revised estimate. The department projects continued lower spending in 2022-23 and 2023-24. 

The reality is that where the state fails to properly budget for and fund education, it is most often those dependent on no-fee public education who pay the price. It is poor black learners that shoulder this burden as 98% of the learners in no-fee paying schools (quintiles 1 to 3) in South Africa are black or coloured. These schools are often completely dependent on the state for all education resources. 

The educational losses that learners suffer have life-long ramifications. After eight weeks of schooling, learners are only now receiving books to write in and pencils to write with. They are dependent on photocopies of textbooks, if they’re lucky, and pages that they lose or struggle to interpret as they are not in colour. This is particularly problematic for learners in younger grades, where reliance is often placed on the colours of objects in interpreting concepts and answering questions. It is difficult to subtract the green apples from the red apples, when they are all in black and white. 

The right to basic education in section 29(1) of the Constitution has been developed to include certain goods and services, including textbooks, scholar transport, teachers, desks and chairs, and adequate infrastructure. It is critical that the education budget funds core resources such as textbooks and stationery. This must be coupled with proper planning and procurement processes that will ensure that textbooks and stationery are delivered on time and that every child is issued with a textbook for all their subjects. 

The retrogressive budget cuts by the state are directly contrary to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights’ recommendations that South Africa increase its spending on education and mobilise “the maximum available resources” towards socioeconomic rights. It is time for the government to get their house in order and for the national and provincial legislatures to take a tougher line on their monitoring and oversight responsibilities to reverse harmful budget cuts.