Putting learners' interests first – the reasons for school closures
Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance 7 August 2012
There is a rational question at the root of the outcry against the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) proposed closure of 27 schools: “How can this be justified at a time when the demand for places in Western Cape schools is increasing dramatically?”
Paradoxically, the rising demand is one of the reasons. Escalating urbanisation, migration within urban areas, the changing age profile of communities, and the need to improve schooling (among other factors) require the Department to align the supply of quality schooling with the demand. This means building many new schools, modernising old ones, and closing some.
At the end of our provincial government’s 5-year tenure (2014/15) we will have built 81 new or “replacement” schools (of which 31, catering for 30,000 learners, have already been completed). So why has the public focus been exclusively on the 27 proposed closures?
Change is never easy and almost always generates resistance. But part of the reason is that the ANC and its alliance partner the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) have been vocal enough to shape the public discourse. Their protest has struck a chord because it appears to be valid. The ANC Youth League has gone one step further, threatening to make Cape Town and the Province “ungovernable” unless proposed school closures are stopped.
The greatest paradox is that, over the past decade, the ANC has closed thousands of schools in the provinces it governs.
According to statistics from the national Department of Basic Education, more than 1,000 schools were closed in ANC-governed provinces between 2006 and 2010.
And, starting from the year 2000, the South African Institute of Race Relations puts the figure at 2,388 schools. The provincial breakdown is: 1,116 closed in the Free State; at least 648 in North West; at least 590 in the Eastern Cape; 215 in Mpumalanga; 173 in Limpopo; and 111 in Northern Cape. During this period, 49 schools were closed in the Western Cape, most under the ANC’s tenure in the Province. In fact, the only period during which the Western Cape Education Department closed more schools than it built was during the period of ANC rule.
Apart from exposing the ANC’s customary hypocrisy, what is the point of quoting these statistics?
They show that the “shape and size” of the education system is in constant flux, everywhere. Provincial education departments build new schools, expand and replace existing schools and consider schools for closure every year to meet changing education needs.
This is particularly the case in rural areas. Out of the 27 Western Cape schools proposed for closure, 20 are rural schools with very few pupils. Because national laws and regulations allocate resources based on the number of learners at a school, many of the tiny rural schools have “multi-grade” classrooms, where one teacher is responsible for educating several grades simultaneously. In the most extreme cases a teacher may have seven different grades in a single classroom. This requires the preparation and delivery of 50 lessons each day to cover the syllabus of each grade. Despite the exceptional dedication of many of these teachers, this is an impossible demand.
When these schools are consolidated into larger schools, they have more resources, including teachers, and the quality of education for the children improves as a result. Most of these children use transport provided by the Department.
Seven of the schools proposed for closure are in urban areas. Three are primary schools with declining numbers (because parents are voting with their feet, usually in search of better quality). All learners from the declining schools can be accommodated in neighbouring schools.
Learners at a fourth primary school (that is constantly being vandalised) also have easy access to nearby schools which are better managed and maintained. The Department cannot continue to pour scarce resources to repairing infrastructure that is repeatedly vandalised.
Consistent underperformance or extremely poor infrastructure and high drop-out rates are among the reasons why the Department is proposing the closure of three high schools in greater Cape Town. The Department can and should accommodate these learners in better, safer schools where they are more likely to succeed.
In short, the educational interest of learners is the motivating factor behind all these proposals. The Department of Education is, today, releasing a detailed analysis for the proposed closure of each of the 27 schools.
The provincial minister will have to consider all the representations made during the public participation process, weigh up the evidence and make the final decision on whether or not to close each school on the basis of the best educational interests of the pupils. Teachers, too, will be accommodated at other schools.
The Department will do whatever it can to initiate and maintain an open and frank debate. However, I expect the process to degenerate into high-profile public posturing led by the ANC and SADTU. The last thing on their minds is the interest of the learners.
The question is: Will public discourse be swept along in their wake? Or will people debate the merits of each case, knowing that the accountability they demand in education sometimes requires tough decisions?
Bowing to pressure from SADTU has ruined Eastern Cape Education, where some schools remain open with a full complement of teachers, despite dwindling pupil numbers. In a school in Butterworth, for example, there are only 55 learners left -- and 22 teachers. At the same time, other schools are bursting at the seams, but the Eastern Cape Education Department cannot fill the required posts, because they have far exceeded the available budget. That is the heart of the current crisis in the province.
Managing growing demand on the basis of limited resources requires some difficult trade-offs and tough decisions. If we want to fix education, far more difficult decisions still lie ahead. As long as we ensure that our choices are focused on the best interests of the learners, rather than the vested interests of SADTU, we will be moving in the right direction.