Inside Government: High Noon in Dunoon
Inside Government is a newsletter written by Premier Helen Zille.
High Noon in Dunoon
An unfolding story I have been following closely, reveals a lot about the challenges of planning for, and managing, education provision in a context of high population migration.
The story first hit me between the eyes when, at the start of the third school term, I read a newspaper article with the headline “Pupils still not in Class”. The opening paragraph stated: “More than 700 children from Dunoon Cape Town, who have no schools are being taught by their parents, Equal Education Law Centre’s Sherylle Dass said yesterday.”
The article went on to describe how the parents and children had occupied empty mobile classrooms in the area during the school holidays.
From the report one would have concluded that, for nine months of the academic year, 700 children in the area had not been able to attend school, while there were vacant mobile classrooms available to accommodate them.
As I began to investigate what I thought could be a major crisis, a different picture emerged entirely.
In summary, the real situation is this. There are 113 children of school-going age in the Dunoon area who require placement. The parents of over 40% of these learners concede that they made no previous attempt to enrol their children at school during 2015. The remainder claim to have done so but could provide no proof, or details, of their efforts.
Some parents claim that their children were turned away from schools in the area because they were full. However, whenever a school is unable to place a learner of school-going age, the school is required to record the name of the learner on a database, so that the department can place the child. None of the 113 learners appear on the list of unplaced learners.
This does not mean that a small number of children might not have slipped through the cracks – which would, in itself, be very serious. But it is simply not believable that this could have happened to over 60 children in one area (let alone the grossly inflated figure of 700 mentioned in the original article, or even the 500 and 300 mentioned in other articles). The schools and officials involved, categorically deny these claims. And if scores of children had been turned away, it is not plausible that our district offices would have remained oblivious to the crisis. They are contacted every day for far less serious problems.
The sentence that shocked me most in all the reporting on this saga appeared in the Daily Sun on 23 July as a quote from a parent: “They [the children] just sit at home and neighbours send them to buy beer and cigarettes.” Frankly, if it is true that adults illegally abuse children in this way, it is small wonder that their education is neglected.
But, reading between the lines of all the reports, I concluded there was more to this than met the eye -- which is usually the case in such circumstances.
Dunoon is an area that has been growing rapidly, primarily through in-migration. A majority of parents of the 113 learners requiring placement, had moved to the Western Cape (primarily from the Eastern Cape) after 2013. In such circumstances, parents usually settle first, and bring their children later. One article quoted parents saying “many of the children out of school moved from the Eastern Cape this year with the hope of getting a better education, but they failed to make the necessary arrangements to get their children enrolled.”
Of course, it is the job of department officials to deal with such emergencies, but it is becoming more and more difficult to plan for and meet the scale of the demand. In order to ensure the optimum distribution of scarce resources, we require parents to enrol their children the previous year, so that we can order and allocate everything, from school furniture to text books and teachers, in the correct numbers at the designated sites. Over the past five years, our database shows that 154 891 pupils from the Eastern Cape have moved to Western Cape schools, at a cost to the Provincial budget of R1.85 billion. In the past five years we have also built 46 new and “replacement” schools to accommodate the growing demand. According to the current “division of revenue” system, state subsidies for learners who move between provinces are still allocated in their province-of-origin, until the allocation is changed after the next census results have been processed. This on its own creates enormous budgetary bottlenecks.
But there is even more to this story than merely the massive challenge and costs of inter-provincial migration.
As often happens, we uncovered the root cause in a community conflict, and competition for jobs.
The mobile classrooms, vacated on 29 May, when the newly-built Sophakama primary school was opened, were immediately occupied by a group of “volunteer” teachers and learners demanding to start their own school. This is a common pattern when unemployed individuals seek to create jobs for themselves. They round up pupils to start a new school, and then demand that they be employed as teachers. The initially inflated figure of 700 children included many learners who had been enrolled at other schools since 2013. Their numbers were used merely to create a grossly exaggerated perception of need, to support the “volunteers’” demand for employment.
We have taken a tough stance on this: whenever, and wherever a new school is opened, we advertise posts and seek to appoint applicants in open competition on the basis of merit. Governing body members have a lot of say in recommending teachers for posts, a system which works very well where parents have sufficient experience to recognize the characteristics and qualities of a good teacher. In other contexts, there are serious unintended consequences, including corruption, associated with this system.
In the Dunoon case, the “volunteer teachers” and “the community” strongly resisted competitive appointments. The “temporary teachers” (backed by the parents) insisted on being employed. But we have remained unmovable on our policy of competitive appointments, which is in the best educational interests of the children.
But there was yet another dimension to this saga, involving an alleged conflict between the principal of the newly built Sophakama Primary and community members reportedly led by the deputy Principal of a neighbouring school, who allegedly wants a promotion to a principal’s post, with the backing of some members of the community. These personal dynamics are often the root cause of so-called “delivery” protests.
It took us weeks to peel away these layers and establish exactly what was going on. The fact remains that, however and whenever they arrived, there are 113 unplaced children of compulsory school going age in the middle of the school year. This is extremely worrying. We have now ensured placement, and extra tuition to make up their teaching deficit.
And next year, if previous trends are maintained, we expect 20,000 additional learners to enroll in Western Cape schools from other provinces. Given the higher-than-inflation salary increases granted to teachers this year, it will be impossible to create the additional posts we need to meet this need within our current budget.
Managing a system at the scale of an education department is an enormous challenge. It is only workable if parents make the effort required of them to enroll their children in schools on time, the previous year, and follow up diligently with the department if problems arise. And while one cannot force parents to take their responsibilities seriously, one can only hope that those who allow their children to be sent on errands to “buy cigarettes and beer” will think twice before blaming “the government” when things go wrong.