OPINION | Securing places at public schools: How can the system be improved?

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School desks. (Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)
School desks. (Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)

Every year, thousands of children have to wait for a place in a school, often long after their friends have started their school year. Parents are upset, children are uncertain, politicians are making promises and officials are making threats. Just to be repeated the next year … Dr Jaco Deacon, Deputy CEO of FEDSAS, looks at how we can address admissions to schools.

The Constitution determines that everyone has to right to a basic education and the Schools' Act determines that a learner has to go to school in the year that they turn seven.

Children should be in school – this is primarily the state's constitutional responsibility.

The Schools' Act tasks MECs with the responsibility to ensure that there are enough schools in a province. The MEC has to report to the minister in instances where there are not enough schools, and is responsible for an action plan to rectify the matter. The "easiest" way for an MEC to do this seems to be to force schools to accept more and more learners. Then it becomes the school's problem!

Gauteng is the clearest example.

An average school in Gauteng has double the number of learners compared to the average of the rest of the country.

Gauteng is considered a province with job opportunities and the dismal performance of the Limpopo education department is not making things easier. In the Western Cape, schools are under pressure because of migration. Although this migration was initially driven by economic opportunities, it is now a symptom of the total collapse of the education system in the Eastern Cape.

The Western Cape and Gauteng are the only provinces where capacity mostly relates to the availability of schools.

A massive construction project 

What is the solution? A massive construction project similar to what we saw with the Soccer World Cup. At least 500 new schools – we can do it, if there is enough political will!

New suburbs and business centres pop up in cities almost daily. The problem is that there appears to be no communication between the different spheres of government, let alone town and regional planning. How can developers receive the go-ahead, but there is no provision for public areas, schools and places of worship? It does not take much to realise that the children of the people, who are going to live there, will have to go to school. An average primary school has about 750 learners, with a high school at about 1 200. You do the math.

Talking about math – it is a disgrace that the most recent data on schools, learners and educators (School Realities) was published in February 2019 and, therefore, contains 2018 data. How do you plan in a dynamic sector with data that is three years old?

In 2018, there were 23 076 public schools, with 407 001 educators, who had to teach the 12 408 755 learners.

How many schools, educators and learners are there today?

By the way, the latest infrastructure reports on the website of the Department of Basic Education were published in 2018. Parliament's portfolio committee on education is asleep when it comes to oversight.

READ | Schools still turning away immigrant children

This brings us to the second point about admissions. Parents want the best education for their children. This means that I will pass a school with a 36% pass rate to enrol my child in the school with a 98% pass rate. It is not politics; it is wanting the best for your child.

There is pressure on admissions in all nine provinces, but the pressure is on functioning (read: good) schools.

The closest school should be the best school, but we know this is not the case.

Provincial departments are doing far too little to fix dysfunctional schools.

We are talking about basic things – fill vacant posts, get infrastructure up to standard, provide learning material and make sure that teaching takes place for five hours every day. Get rid of incompetent principals. A strong leader can change the course of a struggling school within a short period, with the support of the department and a good governing body.

Why is capacity so important? Because there is only so much space in schools. Full stop. Why is capacity such a cause of disagreement? Because of a lack of a uniform standard to measure capacity. Subjective opinions and accompanying instructions from politicians and officials are placing enormous pressure on principals and governing bodies.

Allow me to explain: When I stand in a "classroom" and I ask an architect, a safety inspector, a foundation phase teacher and a science educator when the class is full, I will get four different answers. The Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure (new schools) and the National Building Regulations have requirements and so do municipal by-laws and national safety standards. Schools were not all built from the same plan. Classroom sizes differ, furniture and education methods have to be taken into account and, of course, learners require somewhere safe to relax and play.

The school governing body determines the admissions policy at school level.

In 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that the SGB determines admissions policy at school level, which includes the maximum number of learners and, therefore, capacity (Member of the Executive Council for Education in Gauteng Province and Others v Governing Body of the Rivonia Primary School).   

The provincial head of education must use the school's policy as a guideline in any decision about admission. If the head of education wants to change a decision of the school, or wants to deviate from the school's policy, this decision must be reasonable and procedurally fair. Where the Schools' Act allows for the SGB to determine policy on a specific aspect, the head of education or any other government official may not simply ignore this policy or contradict it. 

Best interests of the children

A public school has a duty of care towards all its learners, according to which the best interests of the children remain the top priority. Of all the factors that have to be taken into account when determining capacity, learners' interests should be first. It is, therefore, the SGB's duty to see to it that an environment is created that adheres to the minimum requirements for services, such as ablution and safety.

Additional factors to consider when determining capacity include the number of available educators, the available space for administrative needs, the need for space for sport, cultural and recreational activities, as well as existing media and computer labs, science and technology labs and the school hall. Schools also have to adhere to municipal by-laws on noise, pollution and traffic, as well as safety measures determined by labour and other legislation.

READ | What's on the cards for basic education department in 2021

The recent draft policy on admissions published for public commentary does not include a capacity stipulation. FEDSAS has requested that it be included. Objective criteria can bring certainty and resolve conflict at schools. FEDSAS has made available a formula to give structure to the calculation of capacity to determine when a school is full, and according to which the SGB can determine and manage capacity and admissions in a fair and reasonable manner.

Let's build new schools and change existing ones into places of quality.

Capacity is more than just seats – it lies at the heart of quality education.

- Dr Jaco Deacon is Deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS), author of 'School governance: Common issues and how to deal with them', 'Human Resources Management in Public Schools', 'Case Law Handbook on Education' and editor of the' Juta Education Law and Policy Handbook'.

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