The proposed closure of 27 schools in the Western Cape has been met with resistance and protest from some of the affected communities. Kudakwashe Matongo of the IJR had a chat with Equal Education’s General Secretary Brad Brockman to find out what the implications of the proposed closure of schools are to the affected communities and learners.
KM: What are the key reasons for the proposed closure of the 27 schools in the Western Cape?
BB: As most of these schools are located in the rural Western Cape areas, the issues raised are dwindling learner numbers, coupled with the fact that some of the school classrooms have more than one grade being taught in one class and deteriorating learning standards are some of the major reasons given for their proposed closure.
KM: Under which circumstances can closure of schools be legitimate and acceptable?
BB: There are instances when closing of schools is legitimate, but this needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. For instance in the changing settlement patterns and urbanisation, a lot of people who were previously living on farms and rural areas are now living in cities which means that provision of schooling and location of schools is something that may have to be changed. Even in these instances, there has to be a proper process of community consultation and individual learner interest has to be taken into consideration so that the decisions made do not infringe on the right to basic education.
KM: In the case of the 27 schools in the Western Cape, do you think that the reasons put forward are legitimate to warrant the closure of these schools?
BB: We as Equal Education do not feel that closing of schools is the appropriate and correct way of dealing with the underperformance and drop-out challenges schools are facing particularly in the townships and rural areas. Instead, what is more prudent is the adoption of holistic interventions to address issues that are causing schools to underperform. These interventions may range from reforming school management, teacher training, language policies, and broader community issues. In instances where the Provincial Education Department has to close schools, the reasons have to be clearly articulated and there has to be a uniform standard of evaluating the number of schools that should be considered for closure. For closure to be legitimate, consideration should take into account factors that affect access to schooling and quality of adequate education which will be received by the learners.
KM: How has the process towards the closures of these schools been unfolding?
BB: Earlier this year, the WCED sent letters to 27 schools in the Western Cape stating that they are considering closing the schools and also citing the reasons why in each individual case they were considering closing the school. They in the same letter gave the schools opportunity for the school governing body to make a written and oral presentation in response to that letter. These representations were made by the schools and evaluated by the MEC, Donald Grant. He responded to them by saying he wanted to go ahead to the next stage with all of the 27 schools which is basically community consultation which will be conducted throughout the month of August. This will be an opportunity for community members and parents to give their views on school closures.
KM: What has been the scope of Equal Education’s involvement in this particular issue?
BB: When the news of closure of the schools came out, Equal Education wrote to the Education department seeking more information about the reasons behind closure of these schools in the Western Cape. We were contacted by a few of the schools which received letters from the MEC particularly Peak View Secondary school and Zonnebloem Nest Senior school mentioning that they were not in favour of the closure of schools. We met with these schools and others to better understand the situation. Until now, we have been trying to find out information on what has been happening and reasons the department does not want to give information regarding their intentions arguing it will compromise the process and we feel at this stage of community consultation to effectively monitor this process we need to know what has happened until now.
KM: How will the closure of these schools impact on the educational needs of the affected learners?
BB: The closure of schools in the Western Cape will impact negatively on some children’s education needs and life-chances. The parents of the children at these schools are now insecure about whether there will be a place for their children at that particular school for next year which is difficult as parents are looking for alternative schools. Questions around safety, acceptance of learners and quality of education in the new schools are being raised.
KM: To what extent is Equal Education able to influence education policies?
BB: Equal Education conducts campaign on particular issues at particular schools. For example in schools where there are so many broken windows or corporal punishment in practice our members who are mostly high school students undertake campaigns directed to these particular issues. We also have broader campaigns that aim at reforming policies or laws. At the moment we have a campaign for “Norms and standards for schools infrastructure”. This campaign is basically calling for Ministry of basic education to adopt a legal standard for all schools infrastructure. In this instance we are calling on the National department as well as the provincial department to develop regulations and policies that set out how it is that schools should be considered for closure and how the process should unfold.
KM: In your own opinion what would be the best way to resolve this issue?
BB: As mentioned earlier, there is no national or provincial law or regulation which states the criteria that should be employed for closure of schools. Adoption of a clear cut law that states how the procedure should unfold is imperative. In resolving the education problems, at all times the interest of the learners must always take priority. Proper community consultation should take place in a transparent manner before policy decisions are made. Also, adoption of holistic interventions to address issues that cause schools to underperform ought to be deliberated upon rather than closing the schools.
KM: What role can communities play to improve school performance?
BB: As our organisation engages in mobilising communities through campaigns, lobbying and advocacy, the communities play a critical role in decision making and improving education outcomes. We mobilise communities to support their children’s education by giving actual support in the home, and active participation in the School Governing Bodies (SGBs), and becoming equal education activists. Through active participation of parents in the school greater accountability and improved school functionality can be achieved.
KM: In your own opinion what are some of the key critical interventions required to improve the quality of education?
BB: As the Equal Education we believe there is a complex set of challenges which cannot be addressed by government alone. The students, parents and communities need to be mobilised to ensure that the requisite number of hours are spent in class and also that safety of learners is monitored. There is on-going need to improve infrastructure, to capacitate school leadership and ensure school governing bodies are accountable in their duties, and teachers receive the necessary support and training. Alongside that the social problems of poverty, hunger and ill health which cannot be separated from the school environment also need to be urgently addressed as they affect education outcomes.
Equal Education is a social movement with a mass membership base primarily in townships and rural areas. They advocate and campaign for improved conditions in schools as well as greater equality in the education system. It does this through mass mobilisation, use of media, law & advocacy, and political lobbying.
A special thanks to Zyaan Davids – IJR’s communications officer for her assistance in setting up this interview.