Education problems: Are Afrikaans schools to blame?

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi. (Christopher Moagi, Daily Sun)
Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi. (Christopher Moagi, Daily Sun)

Paul Colditz

The recent court struggle over Overvaal High School and the EFF’s protest at the school on Wednesday have placed the spotlight squarely on language issues and admission of learners in public schools. 

Gauteng politicians and officials were quick to attribute the crisis that inevitably arises each year at the beginning of the year when thousands of learners have not yet been admitted to schools, to the so-called refusal of Afrikaans schools to allow English learners to attend these schools. This reeks of opportunism.

Let’s look at the numbers.

There are 23 719 public schools in South Africa. Of these, only 2 484 schools use Afrikaans as language of instruction, either in single, dual or parallel medium. The single medium Afrikaans schools make up 1 279, or 5% of the total number of schools. If you also count the dual or parallel medium schools, 10% of the total number of schools in the country has Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

The table below shows the complete picture of the number and distribution of schools with Afrikaans as a language of instruction, with the numbers in brackets in column 2 indicating single medium schools. (In the third column, the numbers for 2016 are indicated because the information for 2017 has not been published yet).

Over the past 10 years (2006-2016) the number of learners in public schools in Gauteng increased by 348 118. On the assumption that each school should accommodate 1 000 learners, it would imply the construction of approximately 348 new schools.

In reality, the total number of schools in Gauteng in the corresponding 10 years has only increased by 85. This is clear evidence of complete lack of proper planning and poor leadership.

Add to that the fact that certain schools in the province are running empty as parents try to escape the misery of poor education for their children – then it is clear why there is so much pressure on the well-functioning schools.

This has nothing to do with language.

It has everything to do with quality of education and migration of parents and learners away from provinces and areas where the education is not of an acceptable standard to areas, particularly Gauteng and the Western Cape, where they believe their children will have a better education and future. Incidentally, in the Western Cape the increase in learner numbers over the same 10 year period is 113 810, whilst the number of schools has decreased by 2. In a province such as the Eastern Cape it is calculated that there are about 2 000 school too many.

It is also interesting to note the average enrolment of schools in the provinces. The table below is ample illustration of the extent to which individual schools in Gauteng and the Western Cape have to accommodate far more learners than schools in other provinces.

The problem with dysfunctional schools and consequently poor education is indeed massive. When almost 80% of grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning, when thousands of children drop out of school every year, or are deprived of proper education because education departments do not appoint temporary teachers to fill vacancies, or appoint principals and teachers, or do not pay subsidies to which schools are entitled because provincial budgets are exhausted, it is not Afrikaans schools or any other schools' fault.

Functional schools are making every effort to reach out to disadvantaged communities and schools in the midst of their own overcrowded programs. This includes Afrikaans schools. However, there is little that any individual school can do to cope with or solve the massive systemic problems. The cause of these problems must be placed squarely before the door of the state.

We live in a country where language, language rights, identity and culture, race and similar issues inevitably raise emotions and even rage. The placement of 55 learners who prefer English instruction in an Afrikaans single medium school which is already full creates the ideal opportunity to induce chaos and divert the attention from the actual problems facing millions of learners in the country on a daily basis. 

Panyaza Lesufi, outspoken MEC for Education in Gauteng, is always very quick to play the race card. Our children must "play, dance and go to school together", he says. What he doesn’t seem to know is that this has been happening for a long time, also in Afrikaans schools. 

There is, to the best of my knowledge, no public school in South Africa that is exclusively white or wants to be such. In fact, the majority of Afrikaans schools in South Africa are not so-called "white" schools.

It is excellent leadership by school governing bodies and principals who lead their communities to accept responsibility for their schools themselves that results in excellence and functionality. Functional schools do so in spite of, and not due to, the presence of the education department.

School communities have the opportunity to choose leaders this year to promote the best interests of their schools and children. The triennial election of governing bodies takes place countrywide in March. It is vital that every parent takes part in this process.

- Paul Colditz is the CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, FEDSAS.

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