The Western Cape departments of public works and education have announced that the new schools will be built in the province over the next three years. This follows a storm of protest during the past month over the fact that the provincial government seems to be closing schools at an equally busy rate. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The closing of schools, especially in the current climate of anxiety over educational shortfalls, is always going to be an emotional issue. And emotions have indeed been running high ever since the Western Cape education department announced last month that 27 schools are up for closure in the province.
The ANC has explicitly accused the DA of having anti-poor motivations for the closures – on 17 June protesters outside the provincial legislature held signs saying “DA honours Madiba’s 27 years in prison by closing 27 schools”, and calling for education MEC Donald Grant’s head to roll.
ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman has charged that the provincial education department wants to close the schools – many of which are located in underprivileged areas – because they hope to “manage education results”. He has also said he believes one motivation for the closures to be the DA’s desire to build houses and shopping malls on the land where the schools currently stand.
The Western Cape education department has denied that there are any ulterior motives behind the mooted closures, saying that some of the reasons why particularly schools were being targeted included “ageing school infrastructure, dwindling learner numbers and persistently poor learner outcomes”, and that every student at a school which is closing will be placed in another school.
They have also stressed that no final decisions on closures have been made yet, because each school’s governing body will have a chance to make representations on the matter and there will be a public participation process happening from mid-August to the beginning of September.
Their other major defence was the point that closing schools is not solely a DA proclivity – they cited a department of basic education statistic which records that between 2006 and 2010 about 1,000 schools were closed nation-wide.
These rebuttals did not convince everybody. Constitutional law blogger Pierre de Vos wrote in response: “There might well be cases where the only sensible thing to do would be to close a particular school, but surely the assumption must be that this is seldom the right thing to do.” He continued: “Neither the national department nor the Western Cape education department has really provided cogent reasons, based on the actual needs of the children and their parents, of why these schools have to be closed.”
Unsurprisingly, then, at Thursday’s media briefing Grant was keen to shift the focus away from the schools being closed to the schools being built, even if at first blush that idea seems illogical. The mood of the briefing was one of mutual congratulations between the departments of public works and education, who are collaborating on the school-building project, with both paying loving tribute to the other. At one stage the DA’s motto, “Better together”, was even cited as epitomising the spirit of their working relationship.
However, almost half the budget for the school-building project has been made available by national government as part of the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative – a point transport and public works MEC Robin Carlisle and Grant were both careful to acknowledge. National education is putting in about R750-million, to add to the provincial budget allocation of R770-million. The Western Cape is the first province that will kick off the national infrastructure building programme.
So the total available budget for educational infrastructure in the Western Cape over the next three financial years will exceed R3-billion – a funding leap Carlisle termed “an enormous increase”. They hope to build a total of 81 schools over the next three years, at an average of 27 per year. The construction work will create about 20,000 jobs, with 6,000 set aside for youth and 3,000 reserved for women.
But the question still needed to be asked: wouldn’t it make more sense to plough money into existing schools to avert closures, rather than building new ones? Carlisle and Grant both stressed that the situation in terms of schools opening and closing was “dynamic”, not “static”, and that “recycling goes on all the time”. Carlisle said students would end up better off attending “a better school, that is better equipped, with better resources”. Grant also said that as more schools are built, a greater proportion of the budget will go to “preventative maintenance” to uplift existing schools.
Carlisle noted that, contrary to public perception, some areas have experienced a falling birth rate over recent years, which means that schools in the area are under-utilised. Grant cited some hangovers from apartheid in terms of schools’ locations, whereby sometimes a number of schools were built in very close proximity in order to accommodate different races, which can lead to a glut of schools in certain areas. Both of these examples were advanced as illustrations of situations in which schools could be closed and more usefully opened elsewhere. Grant also said that 19 out of 27 of the schools which have been proposed for closure were leased, and that “it makes more sense to own our properties”.
“We have only one objective,” Grant said: “To lift the quality of potential outcomes for our learners”. Because building costs have gone down over the years, it is now possible to build a high-quality school for R31-million, whereas it would have cost R41-million a decade ago. “We’re now essentially getting four schools for the price of three,” Carlisle added. Funding for fitting out the new schools with desks and internal infrastructure will come from norms and standards budgets.
What will happen to the schools slated to be closed? Head of public works Gary Fisher said some will be closed in order to be rebuilt. Others could be re-deployed as community resources, like health facilities. He gave the example of a closed Delft school, which is now a thriving community centre. But Fransman’s suspicions that the school land is to be used for more lucrative projects in some cases is not entirely misplaced: two schools in prime locations in Sea Point are to be used for “highest invest use”, probably housing, and the resulting income redeployed to other projects.
Equal Education’s Doron Isaacs told the Daily Maverick that “the building of new schools is to be welcomed”, but listed a number of criteria that he hoped would be attended to in their construction. Among these, that the schools’ locations be heavily focused on poor and working-class communities, and that the schools be fitted out with the necessary features to ensure a quality education, including sports facilities and science labs.
“Will these new schools come with a commitment to integrated education? In other words, will Khayelitsha learners be confined to Khayelitsha, or will they be able to attend schools in the ity if they so choose?” he asked. “We are concerned that there is a mentality that young people must be educated with their ‘own’.” He added that a much improved public transport system for pupils would also help to integrate schools.
It remains to be seen exactly what effect on communities the proposed school closures and openings will have, and whether the news of the new schools will be enough to appease those negatively affected by the closures. Nonetheless, at a time when the news is dominated by the Limpopo textbook scandal, it’s more than a little bit refreshing to hear about a large-scale investment in education. DM
Photo: Western Cape Public Works MEC Robin Carlisle, Chief Director of Public Works Thando Mguli and Education MEC Donald Grant address the media on Thursday
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