/ 13 July 2022

Basic education sector marred by a lack of political will

Young people are not equipped for the fourth industrial revolution and adding computers to the classroom isn’t a solution. They need to start their education at the age of three. David Harrison
David Harrison

The Constitution, under Section 29(1), guarantees the right to basic education and this right is immediately realisable. That is to say, every child in South Africa must automatically have access to basic education and the government has to make provision to ensure that this right is not infringed on. 

In doing so, the government has a responsibility to ensure that the level of education is of the best quality and that it is equal and easily accessible to all those who live in the Republic. To ensure accessibility, the basic education sector is mainly public and relies on government spending. But recent years have shown that even though basic education is largely public and free, not everyone has access to it.

In addition to section 29 of the Constitution enshrining the right to basic education, the sector is governed by the South African Schools Act (Sasa) Act. The Sasa Act ensures that all children aged seven to 15 have access to compulsory quality schooling without any form of discrimination and it makes a way for two types of schools, these being independent schools that are largely used by the middle class and elites, and public schools attended by the majority of children whose families live below the poverty line. 

The Sasa Act is put into effect through the basic education department that is mandated to deliver and monitor the standard of education provided throughout South Africa. 

As of 2009, the department has been headed by Minister Angie Motshekga. The minister is informed and guided by the National Education Policy Act, which highlights the laws and policies that guide the minister in ensuring that the right to basic education is well executed. 

The minister is also compelled by the Sasa Act in section 5A to ensure that there is a certain standard of education that is of quality. The Employment of Educators Act is used to regulate the professional, moral and ethical responsibilities of educators.

With so many laws in place and a department that is founded and informed solely on the principle of delivering quality basic education, one would expect to see the education system excelling in delivery and being among the top in global rankings. But there is a wide gap in the education system between policy and implementation and a façade of progress is painted by leaders in this sector. 

There are a number of problems in the education sector, one of the most pressing being service delivery in public schools. 

This leads to the lack of equal, equitable and just schooling environments for many learners in the nine provinces, and this makes it difficult and quite risky for learners to attain their basic right to education. 

The conditions of many public schools are frightening and have taken a turn for the worse, which has at times resulted in the death of learners and teachers. One could argue that these deaths are induced because they happen under the watch of officials who vowed to protect and ensure that learners are well taken care of. 

It is heartbreaking to hear of learners who suffocate in human waste after falling into unsafe pit latrines (including one sent by a teacher to fetch a cellphone that had dropped into such a pit) that are still being used in schools in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. 

It is equally heartbreaking when we hear of learners and teachers who are stabbed or shot to death in Gauteng and Western Cape schools because security is inadequate. It is also shocking when we hear of learners in KwaZulu-Natal who have to walk at least 10km to get to school because the government is playing a blame game instead of providing transport . 

The public education system is deeply flawed and exacerbated by austerity measures that seek to treat the basic education department as a donor system to other government departments.

The intention of the government is not clear when it comes to fixing schools and calls to do so have been ignored by leaders who lack political will. 

Civil society organisations have been litigating on behalf of learners and even came up with regulations called the Uniform Norms and Standards of School Infrastructure that stipulates the criteria for what public schools should be for them to be considered schools. 

These legally binding standards, with timeframes, were adopted on 29 November 2013 and serve as a framework for schools. They further serve as a tool for people to hold the minister to account. 

The standards also help with tackling the transparency and accountability problems in the department, and offer school communities a voice in the implementation process.

In a functional democracy, one would expect this victory by the school communities to be the beginning of much better and functional schools but this is not the case, because Motshekga’s department has consistently missed deadlines to fix schools without giving any tangible reasons. We can only conclude that this is a classic case of a lack of political will. 

For example, the norms and standards state that, by 2016, all schools that are made of asbestos, mud or zinc, have pit latrines and are without electricity should no longer exist but this deadline was missed. 

Such poorly resourced schools are still in existence. This inability to meet the deadlines suggests that leaders are not intentional in leading the education sector, and because of this dropout rates continue to soar. Half the learners who enrol in schools when they are seven get lost along the way and a hierarchical system of survival of the fittest (or best resourced) is created; only a few graduate with a matric certificate. 

This system perpetuates inequality and crime and further ensures that the disadvantaged remain poor and without any means of upward mobility.

The minister missed the second deadline of the norms and standards of school infrastructure that was set for 2020 and we are headed towards the third deadline, which should be met by 2023. But the basic requirements have still not been met. Instead the minister has provided a new set of norms and standards that is revised as per the #fixnorms court case held in the Bhisho high court with Equal Education acting as a friend of the court. 

The court ordered Motshekga to provide safe and just schools as she had attempted to put a clause in the norms that would allow her to escape her duties if other departments did not come to the party in fixing and building schools. 

The minister tried to appeal this judgment and failed. In June this year, she published a revised version of the norms and standards. According to Equal Education and the Equal Education Law Centre, the revised norms still have loopholes. 

In addition to this, in the revised version it is also proposed that there be a removal of deadlines on the norms and standards of school infrastructure. 

The department did not make this revised version public. Instead it was only published in the Government Gazette and not on the department’s website for public opinion and the department made it available only over three weeks for public comment. 

Equal Education and other civil organisations mention that this document is laden with legal terms that make it inaccessible to school communities.

The best way to fix the public education sector is to allocate more funds to repair and build more schools. 

Instead of the president providing the minister with a different mandate to fix schools, he should rather hold the minister to account. 

The next step should be to put a leader with political will in the basic education department and this is the time for the youth, school communities and the population at large to use their votes critically by voting for leaders who are committed to building a functional society and a country with a better basic education system.

We should constantly monitor the progress of the basic education minister by gauging the key performance areas that inform the progress of her department. 

The youth and school communities should participate in shaping the education system laws by making submissions to the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill. By doing so one gets involved in conversations that strengthen democracy, as well as give force to the laws once passed.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.