Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 15 March 2018

When is a school full?

How do South Africans time and again manage to get so upset over some or other crisis, and how do they want to solve it, if they don’t even have the right information?

The situation at the Overvaal High School where the judge of a High Court recently ruled that the request of the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), that the school should accept 55 additional English learners was unconstitutional, reminded me of what Abraham Lincoln said: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to solve any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Overvaal High School’s governing body argued that there was no space in the school for more learners, whether English or Afrikaans, because the school had already reached its full capacity; in other words the school could not accommodate an additional 55 English-speaking learners because the school was full.

Simultaneously the court also based its verdict on the fact that the two neighbouring English schools, Phoenix High and General Smuts High School, did have space. It now appears that this was not the case. These two schools initially indicated that they did have space, but later changed their statement and indicated that they were full.

This has once again placed the spotlight on a controversial issue in South African education namely: When is a school full? I sought the true facts among the news reports and press releases and even court verdicts. But I could not find them. And I wondered to myself: How do South Africans time and again manage to get so upset over some or other crisis, and how do they want to solve it, if they don’t even have the right information?

In all the news reports and statements on the matter I could not find an exact indication of how many learners Overvaal has and how many learners there are in the two “nearby” English schools.

I place nearby in inverted commas, because a school which is located 13km away is, in my opinion, not located nearby. Here I would like to refer to my own experience as school principal and Circuit Manager of Education. As principal of a high school outside Stellenbosch I was continually informed by the WCED that a child that lived further than 4,5 km from the school was entitled to use the departmental bus service. In such a case, nearby would thus be interpreted as within a radius of 4,5km.

I was often requested by the department to accommodate a learner living within the “catchment area” of the school, because, the argument always was, a school is never full for a poverty-stricken learner living within walking distance of the school and whose parents cannot not afford to send him/her to another school located outside that radius. As circuit manager I also had to deliver this message to school principals.

But back to my initial question: According to my knowledge and experience, schools must, within two weeks of the beginning of the school year, upload the numbers of the learners accurately into an online web page. Thus the department is immediately informed how many learners there are in the school, which schools still have capacity, and which schools are overcrowded or need additional teachers. These numbers must then by signed off by the relevant circuit manager.

In court documents to the Constitutional Court, the department stated that the school’s efforts to determine its capacity were not binding, since the department had not formally confirmed it (by the process indicated above).

Is the school full?

In this regard it is telling that an official of the GED said during an interview on the TV channel 404 that according to them (by the process I indicated above) the two English schools were also full. I thus ask again: When is a school full?

Is it 35 learners per class (the number it used to be when I was principal and which was confirmed to me by an official of the WCED as correct)? In a Sunday paper recently the GED alleged that the two neighbouring schools had already accepted double the number of learners they have space for. If this allegation is true, does it mean that these two schools have registered 70 learners per class?

Because if that is the case, the judge’s verdict has wider implications than was previously thought. Then it is not only Overvaal High School which is full, but also nearly 80% of the schools in South Africa. Some of them are even overcrowded. And if this decision is valid for Overvaal, how much more is it not valid for all the other – mostly poorer coloured and black – schools? The situation is also not limited to Gauteng. The problem occurs country-wide: also in the Western Cape.

My wife, a teacher in the Western Cape, for example, has 45 learners in her class. And not for the first time in her career. If I listen to her, it sounds as if in most of the classes in her school there are more than 40 learners. From my own experience, I know that many schools in South Africa have more than 40 learners per class. What would happen if all these schools approached the court to classify them as “full”?

This would mean that many more learners than the 55 waiting at the gates of Overvaal would not have access to a school. That South Africa would have to build hundreds of schools and we know that our country currently does not have the money for this. Especially not while the government has to find R50 billion for higher education.

Five years ago the WCED requested that the school where my wife is teaching – an Afrikaans medium school – to accept 36 English (black) learners from the neighbouring township because the schools there were overcrowded. The school, its teachers and governing body could, as in the case of Overvaal, have refused. Indeed they had many reasons why they could not accept the learners. They could have pleaded lack of capacity. The school already had 1,200 learners while it was built for 800. The teachers had never taught in English. The school had no English textbooks, etc.

But a school is never full for a child living in the school’s catchment area.

The school put the rights of the school above the right to mother tongue education and accepted the learners. The whole culture of the school had to change and many adjustments had to be made. The challenges were sometimes painful. Often they had to be solved without the help of the authorities. It threatened to derail the school.

But the teacher community at Bergrivier persevered. Eventually, after five years of perseverance and sacrifice, my wife’s English class achieved a pass rate of 100% in Afrikaans. Some of them achieved university admission. This shows you what can be done with a positive attitude.

We underestimate children, and the people who work with them, if I may quote Kathi Appelt.

Today I am proud of my wife, and of Bergrivier High where I too was once an Afrikaans teacher. It is my alma mater, where I learned the values of citizenship and brotherly love from my old masters Arendse, Meyer, Naidoo, Samaai, Cupido and Mettler.

Bergrivier has, like many other schools in the country, shown that there are more important things in life than language. To give a child access to education comes first. This is Bergrivier’s contribution to democracy – as is the case with many other “overcrowded” schools in our country. It is my wife and many other hard-working teachers’ modest attempt to help build a new South Africa.

And even though it sometimes requires much sacrifice, the right attitude will always find a middle ground. In this way, thousands of teachers – to quote Lincoln again – solved what could have been a national crisis which so easily could have derailed our education system.

For the sake of a child’s future. For the sake of nation building.

For the sake of a peaceful South Africa. DM

Prof Michael le Cordeur (PhD) is an NRF rated researcher and the chair of the Department of Curriculum Studies in the Education Faculty at Stellenbosch University where he teaches South African Literature. He is a former high school principal in Stellenbosch and the former Circuit Manager of Education in Stellenbosch. He is a recipient of the Chancellors Award of Stellenbosch University in 2014.

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