Over the past 5 years, on average, the number of learners in Western Cape schools has increased by 19 000 each year, and additional learners continue to need places every year.
To address this demand for placement, the Western Cape Government passed the largest budget for education that our province has ever seen in March 2023, including a R2.9 billion infrastructure plan to build 21 new schools and 289 additional classrooms at existing schools.
This plan was to build on the success of the Rapid School Build programme implemented in 2022, and our delivery of 788 additional classrooms for the 2023 school year, which was a dramatic increase in the pace of delivery compared to previous years.
However, in June 2023, our plan came to an immediate halt when the National Treasury indicated that there would be serious cuts to our provincial funding, but that they could not specify how severe these would be.
Frustratingly, we had no choice but to pull the handbrake on spending until further clarity was provided.
This created an environment of extreme uncertainty with an immediate impact on our plans for infrastructure, as we could not enter into contractor agreements without having certainty that we would have the funds to pay them.
We have now been officially informed of how the fiscal emergency will affect the Western Cape Education Department’s budget.
The National Treasury has decided not to provide all of the funding owed to our province to cover the wage increase it negotiated for public service in this financial year. Instead, our department will only receive 64% of the funding due to us, which means we are being short-changed by R537 million.
Which is why the Western Cape Government has declared an inter-governmental dispute on the shortfall for funding the increased wage bill with national government to ensure that we get our fair share.
At the same time, the Department of Basic Education cut our conditional grants by R179.4 million:
In other words, the national government has dealt a massive R716.4 million blow to our ability to build and maintain schools, and pay teachers. And as a result, we face a R248 million cut specifically to our infrastructure budget within the financial year.
What makes this cut particularly devastating is that, for the first time ever, these cuts were made within the current financial year, and thus take effect immediately, at exactly the time when the demand for placement is highest.
Fighting to expand access to education despite cuts
Despite this blow, we are fighting hard to expand the number of places available at schools in the Western Cape.
We will still build 9 new schools to accommodate the learners applying for the 2024 school year, as well as 496 classrooms in areas of high demand for placement.
In total, our revised plan aims to deliver 608 additional classrooms across the province, which is still more than double the average number built annually before 2022/2023, despite the infrastructure budget cut.
As always, we will be honest and upfront about the risks. We continue to battle those who seek to exploit, disrupt and criminally damage our school construction sites, and will not back down in our fight against the construction mafia.
Details of our legal action against those disrupting construction at the Blueridge Sports complex are available here: https://wcedonline.westerncape.gov.za/news/interdict-granted-against-disruption-blueridge-school-construction
We will also have to cope with the delays caused by the unforgiveable budget uncertainty created over the past few months by the national government. Any delays in the availability of materials, or problems on build sites, will mean that classrooms might be delayed.
We will do everything we can to overcome these challenges, with the ongoing support of our school communities, officials, contractors and local government partners, so that we can find a place for all the learners whose parents have applied.
As of 22 November 2023, we have allocated places for 119 110 or 98.7 %, of the learners for whom applications were received for Grade 1 and 8 for the 2024 school year.
Placement is in progress for 1 568, or 1.3%, Grade 1 and 8 learners. Of these, 636 are learners for whom late applications were received after the admissions window closed, with some arriving as late as this past week.
We understand that this is a stressful and anxious period for these parents. As a department, we are asking parents to work with us as we try to accommodate their children as soon as possible. We are exploring all available options to find a place for these learners for the start of the school year.
Importantly, we are waiting for final progression and promotion data from schools, so that we can finalise their admission lists and place learners in classes with additional space. Schools historically hold onto some spaces to plan for the possibility of learners repeating the grade, thus still requiring a seat in that class. If the number of learners repeating the grade is lower than planned, this will free up additional spaces.
Our officials and schools are working hard under extreme pressure to make sure that they find a place for every child. We are leaving no stone unturned in our effort to place every learner, and we will continue to work to finalise placement for all remaining learners.
Extremely late applications
We have put a great deal of effort into encouraging parents to apply on time during the admissions applications window, between 13 March 2023 to 14 April 2023. We provided pop-up sites across the province for parents to be assisted if they could not apply online. And our district offices have been accepting walk in applications since the online applications closed.
Despite this, we know that many thousands of learners will arrive in the first term next year needing placement. We do not know where they will seek placement, or what their grades, languages, ages or subject choices will be. So planning our resource allocation for these extremely late applicants in advance is very difficult, and their parents will have to wait some time before their child is placed.
We will work to place every learner for whom an application is received going forward, but we want to be clear that Western Cape schools are full, and thus we appeal for patience from parents submitting new applications as they may not be placed before the end of the first term.