Investigation into the Learner Transport Scheme (LTS) in Beaufort West finalised
Every school day the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) transports over 61 000 learners on 567 LTS routes across the province. The LTS policy provides for the transportation of learners living more than 5km from their nearest school.
The budget for the LTS is R414 million.
The WCED is deeply aware of the challenges that learners face in getting to school all over the province and are also sympathetic to the fact that there are cases of learners travelling 3 or 4km to school every day, sometimes across heavily congested roads and intersections.
Unfortunately, due to financial limitations it is impossible for the WCED to reduce the 5km threshold. The number of learners living within a radius of 4km for example, would increase the costs of this scheme dramatically, a cost that we would simply not be able to bear. It would mean a further reduction in teaching posts, as well as fewer classrooms built. Something that we cannot consider at the moment as these areas are already under pressure.
Therefore, we are obligated to conform to the LTS policy.
Last year, a route in Beaufort West was presented to our bus committee for termination due to changed safety conditions. The contract with the service provider was due to expire in December 2019. The route carried over 700 learners at a cost of approximately R4.8 million per year.
The route had originally been established 15 years ago because of unsafe conditions. Learners from a residential area on the other side of the railway line needed to be transported to school as there was no pedestrian bridge over the railway for learners to cross safely. In addition, learners had to cross the N1 roadway without access to a pedestrian crossing, which was a safety risk. The route was only established because of the risks mentioned. The route would not have been initiated otherwise, as the learners reside within 5km from their nearest school.
On re-assessment of the route in 2019, it was made clear that four pedestrian crossings had since been established across the N1, as well as three pedestrian bridges over the railway line as the town had developed and expanded. The unsafe conditions that had prevailed had therefore been diminished substantially.
At the end of the third term 2019, parents and school management were informed timeously that the route would be terminated at the end of 2019. The initial reasons for the approval of the route no longer existed and all learners on the LTS lived within a 5km radius of their nearest school which was not in line with the LTS policy.
On 15 and 16 January 2020 we witnessed dangerous protest action on the N1 roadway after the WCED’s decision to terminate the route came into effect, disrupting traffic. Various allegations and claims were made, including the claim that a new community had been established which housed learners living outside of the 5km threshold.
It was decided that the WCED would provide an interim transport service for the learners while we re-evaluated the route, including verifying the distances and applications of any new learners.
Officials measured the walking distances of learners from all the various communities to their nearest school. All walking distances fell within 5km of their nearest school. The matter was again considered by the WCED and it was again agreed, following due process, that the route must be terminated, as it now falls outside our policy which is applied across the province.
We understand that not everyone will be happy with this decision. However, one must also consider the thousands of learners living within the 5km radius who also have to walk or travel to school elsewhere in the province, crossing busy roads and intersections. Hundreds of applications for learners living between 4–5km have been turned down. The WCED’s decision must be fair and equitable.
While it would be ideal to transport every learner wishing to travel to school, it is just not realistic.
The WCED has informed the schools involved today. The WCED has decided to continue the Beaufort West service for a notice period of three weeks until the end of February (28 February 2020), to allow everyone to make the necessary arrangements.
We will liaise with the local transport authorities and the municipality regarding increased traffic controls and signage on the N1 and the assistance of traffic officials at the pedestrian crossings during peak times.
The local community and municipality must also take responsibility for ensuring the safety of learners travelling to and from their schools. This includes the establishment of a walking bus system, which has been very effective in other communities across the province.
I would like to appeal to the community to ensure that they support our learners and help ensure their safety.
We are also appealing to the community to continue to protect teaching and learning time. Any disruption to our schools will only be to the detriment of the learners.