Opinionista Ian Ollis 29 March 2018

Dear Equal Education, school safety requires a collective effort

It is counterproductive to demand that only one group has the authority and right to speak on issues of school safety. In order to improve the complex situation, we must all contribute.

Earlier this week, the Democratic Alliance launched a School Safety Campaign to urge President Cyril Ramaphosa and the national government to take urgent steps to ensure that our children are safe at school. Central to this campaign is a letter to the president that we have asked fellow South Africans who are concerned about safety to co-sign, demanding that he ensure that:

1.    The South African Council for Educators (SACE) has enough staff and resources to vet all teachers and investigate abuse by teachers;

2.    Enough South African Police Service (SAPS) resources are available to patrol and protect our schools from crime and gangs;

3.    The Department of Social Development properly maintains the Child Protection Register, and that every teacher is checked against it for previous cases;

4.    The Department of Justice keeps the Sexual Offenders Register up to date, and that every teacher is checked against it for previous convictions;

5.    Your government supports our call to have key school staff declared an essential service so that children are not unsupervised at school;

6.    You bring together national and provincial departments to fix the unsafe infrastructure in our schools, especially the dangerous pit toilets that so many learners are forced to use; and

7.    A Safe Schools call centre (designed by Western Cape: 0800 45 46 47) is established in every province.

Anyone can co-sign the letter by visiting protectourchildren.co.zaEqual Education has raised concerns about our campaign, despite our agreement that school safety should be addressed urgently. It is counterproductive to demand that only one group has the authority and right to speak on issues of school safety. In order to improve the complex situation, we must all contribute.

We hope that they will support our letter to the president as an earnest drive to make the required resources and direction available to keep our learners, teachers, schools and communities safe. The reason we have asked the president to address the situation is that many safety issues are simply beyond a provincial education department’s means or capacity.

For example, the SAPS is a national competency. The Western Cape has repeatedly pleaded for specialised gang units, particularly due to the impact gang violence has on young South Africans. Unfortunately, this has not been supported by the national government.

Similarly, entities such as SACE and key registers such as the Child Protection Register and Sexual Offenders Register are controlled by national departments. Collectively they are supposed to form an integral part of vetting school staff, so we need them to be run properly and have the required resources to fulfil that role.

Funding for provincial education departments is also limited – and many of the directives issued by the national department are not backed up with support and funding. While Gauteng and the Western Cape have seen a massive influx of new learners from other provinces in the past five years, the allocated funding is still based on the 2011 census, leading to overcrowding and a greater demand for infrastructure.

As the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, said during her briefing following an urgent Council of Education Ministers (CEM) this week, there is a balancing act between the competing priorities for funding basic education. In order to allocate funding to a project, something else in the budget has to be cut. She stated that intervention from Treasury will be required to accelerate infrastructure plans, or other priorities will have to move down the list.

Moreover, the pressure on basic education funding has escalated significantly due to resources being diverted from schooling to fund higher education. A R3.6-billion school infrastructure budget cut is almost criminal given the need for better buildings and services.

The case of the Eastern Cape is different, though. Equal Education themselves have rightly pointed out the fact that R415-million of their infrastructure funding through the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI) went unspent in 2018, and was reallocated by Treasury. But the provincial department underspent on their own provincial budget by an estimated R500-million in 2016/17 (although some estimates suggest the figure may actually have been as high as R900-million).

When there is such an incredible demand for quality schooling, not spending funding that has been made available is a damning indictment on the MEC and his department. The president has already made a positive step in asking for a comprehensive plan on sanitation, and the minister has committed to providing a rapid audit and costed plan for intervention within three months.

We look forward to seeing what plans will be put in place, and most important, whether the president is willing to re-evaluate some of the budget cuts he has approved to basic education.

We hope that all South Africans will work together to bring this issue to national attention, and to demand that better support and funding is provided to our departments. Schools will not be made safe without a concerted effort in which all national and provincial departments, and state entities, play their role. DM

Ian Ollis MP, DA Shadow Minister of Basic Education

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