School communities on warpath over ‘threatening letter’

Henry

Schools in Gauteng this week already got a taste of what can be expected when the Education Act Amendment Bill (Bela) places certain powers in the hands of heads of education.

Many top schools in Gauteng have received letters from the Gauteng Department of Education, in which they have been informed that the school is under capacity in terms of the number of learners and that they will need additional gr. 1 and gr. 8 learners will have to take

However, schools say independent capacity assessment has indicated that they are already taking the maximum number of learners and that any additional numbers will have serious consequences for learners’ safety and the quality of teaching.

“The (department’s) determination of capacity is completely arbitrary. No reasons were given or an explanation of how the officials made this calculation,” says dr. Jaco Deacon, CEO of Fedsas (Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools). “One of our member schools, which is already full, received notice that according to the department, the school is only 56% full and therefore has to take in hundreds of additional learners.”

In a letter to a Gauteng high school, which RNews has seen, the department claims the school is currently only using 69% of its capacity (833 out of 1200 places) and that the school department expects 35 learners in each gr. 8 class to place.

“This will ensure that the school reaches its full capacity over the next five years,” says the letter. “Therefore,” writes the department, “an additional 18 gr. 8 learners are placed at this school.”

Parents and guardians will be informed on Monday (4 September 2023) by the Gauteng Education Department via SMS about their children’s school placements for next year. “Not only will it cause chaos when children are placed in schools they cannot cope with, but it also creates expectations in parents, guardians and learners that ultimately cannot be met,” says Deacon.

In light of this, Fedsas sent an urgent letter to the Gauteng education department in which the entire determination of capacity is put into dispute. “We are urgently seeking an undertaking that no messages will be sent to parents and guardians on 4 September 2023. In fact, no communication about placements may take place until the capacity dispute is resolved. If Fedsas does not get such an undertaking from the provincial department, the organization will bring an urgent application before the court on behalf of its members.”

The civil rights organization AfriForum has also indicated that it is prepared to approach the court to settle the case.

Melanie Buys, head of development at Solidarity’s School Support Center (SOS), says the letter was mainly sent to high schools and then also to some of the province’s best schools, which annually receive hundreds of more applications than they can take in.

“The Gauteng Department of Education is trying to use threatening letters to create places in schools that do not exist and have not been added by the government over the past 20 years.”

According to Buys, this overcrowding endangers learners’ safety and particularly harms the quality of the teaching offered. “This action tries to cover up years of underperformance of the ruling party and is in no way educationally responsible. The department will be held directly responsible for disregarding building regulations and safety regulations.”

Deacon says this unilateral action by the provincial education department now clearly brings out the underlying political agenda with Bela.

In its presentation on Bela to the parliamentary portfolio committee on basic education, Fedsas pointed out that clear guidelines for capacity assessment are a flaw in the proposed amendments. The existing lack of proper norms and standards for capacity assessment has also already been confirmed by the Constitutional Court. Fedsas also submitted a detailed capacity assessment proposal along with its written submission to the portfolio committee.

“For years, Fedsas has been pointing out to the education department that not enough schools are being built in the province. No attention is paid to this and now there are simply not enough schools in the province. The department’s solution to this is to shift the problem onto schools and especially schools that function well.”

Buys also says that dysfunctional schools in Gauteng mean that parents do not want to place their children in schools closer to home, but try to get a place in functional schools.

“Dysfunctional schools are not held accountable or corrected, but pressure is placed on good schools to take in even more learners.”