Equal Education is barking up the wrong tree - Helen Zille

WCape Premier says organisation's outraged reply to her is, in itself, misleading and error-riddled

Reply to Equal Education

My newsletter, SA Today, will be devoted in the week ahead to the debate around Norms and Standards for South African schools. In it I will deal with the major policy issues involved in setting mandatory benchmarks for school infrastructure.

This statement seeks to do something else. It is a detailed response to allegations by Equal Education (EE) that my reply to a column by journalist William-Saunderson Meyer was "misleading and riddled with errors". EE's allegations are ironic, because it is their own statement (in addition to Saunderson-Meyer's column) that is misleading and riddled with errors.

I have already publicly responded to Saunderson-Meyer. In this statement, I address each of Equal Education's claims. These minutiae are boring to the average reader but it is important to set the record straight, especially given Equal Education's tone of outraged self-righteousness. While we all agree that South Africa's education system is in crisis, and we all believe schools should have infrastructure conducive to teaching and learning, EE is often wrong in its approach to these issues, in substance, style and strategy.

These are my responses to EE's allegations: 

1) EE claims I am wrong to point out that Treasury would not fund the 2008 Norms and Standards. EE quotes three people to support their claim -- none of whom speak on behalf of the Treasury! A recent telephone conversation with a senior Treasury official involved in budget planning for school infrastructure re-confirmed that the 2008 Norms and Standards (championed by Equal Education) are indeed unaffordable to the fiscus.

Neither are they necessarily linked to improved education outcomes. In the Western Cape alone, the Treasury's costing of the 2008 Norms and Standards (that EE supports) amounted to between R8 - R10 billion, before any other expenditure (such as teachers' salaries, school feeding, and learner transport) is taken into account.

2) EE rejects my description of the public participation process as "tortuous", claiming that EE was the only organisation to conduct public "public hearings" on the 2013 Norms and Standards. Public hearings are not the only way to undertake public participation. Organisations, stakeholders and statutory bodies participate in the process without attending hearings. And beyond the immediate "interested and affected parties" in the education sector, the public participation process extended to Nedlac, which is a "tortuous" process in its own right. (A good example is the fact that the government's proposals on the Youth Wage Subsidy, promised by President Jacob Zuma in 2010, have still not emerged from the Nedlac consultations).

The WCED obviously participated in the public consultation process on norms and standards for school infrastructure. The WCED submitted a short response, which apart from a few technical details, simply pointed out that the draft 2013 Norms and Standards did not meet the stipulations of the South African Schools Act. The Department of Basic Education would not have been able to respond adequately to our comment, without scrapping the draft and starting again. Tortuous indeed. Especially given that Minister Angie Motshekga had to meet a six month self-imposed deadline that she agreed to becoming an order of court.

3) EE also claims that it is wrong to suggest that public participation was required "by law". They clearly do not realise what the implications are of the fact that Education is a concurrent function under the Constitution. This requires due process that is not comprehensively covered by the South African Schools Act. A good reading of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act would assist, as a start.

4) EE rejects my argument that Minister Motshekga erred in agreeing to a self imposed deadline of 15 June to publish Norms and Standards. EE trumpets the fact that Motshekga had 11 weeks to do so, and that she had agreed to a 15 May 2013 deadline which was moved by a month at her request. Without going into the technicalities of the "extension" that was "granted" to Minister Motshekga, 11 weeks is pitifully inadequate to undertake the process I have described above, especially when some respondents (like the WCED) cogently argued that the published draft would not pass legal muster.

In fact, I do not believe it is possible at all, for reasons I will describe in my newsletter. That is why EE is barking up the wrong tree in its laudable quest to improve education. Minister Motshekga was right to draw back, even though she embarked on this dead-end street.

5) EE rejects my statement that most provinces cannot spend their infrastructure budgets, and quotes a figure, taken from the Minister's budget speech (and another document) that the spending in Provinces was 96%. This, however, does not take account of the fact that the national department reallocates money between provinces when it becomes clear during the course of the financial year which ones will not be able to spend their infrastructure budgets. For example, Limpopo lost R235-million allocated to them for infrastructure during the past financial year.

In the Eastern Cape, chaotic official data on school infrastructure and chronic underspending are perpetuating poor learning conditions. According to the Public Service Accountability Monitor's analysis of the Eastern Cape education department's 2013-2014 budget, R1.3-billion is allocated to infrastructure. "It is the management of allocated funds that is an ever-present problem," says the report. A "concerted search for concrete and up-to-date financial reports" on projects aimed at eradicating inappropriate school infrastructures "yielded little by way of quantitative, coherent information", the report says. While it is true that most of the other provinces have significantly improved their capacity to spend their infrastructure budgets, the infrastructure crisis is most acute in the provinces that do not spent their budgets.

6) EE says that the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) does not paint an accurate picture of the sanitation in Western Cape Schools, quoting an article in the Cape Times as its source. But the maintenance of the sanitation system in schools is the responsibility of school governing bodies and they get dedicated funding for this type of routine sanitation maintenance, including toilet paper and hand washing liquids.

The Western Cape Education department also provides support staff to schools including cleaners, who are responsible for ensuring hygienic conditions, and departmental officials inspect toilets periodically. There is also an emergency fund for major damage to toilets, which is often occasioned by vandalism. The question EE should ask is whether these schools actually reported the situation and sought the funds to fix the problem. We keep records and respond quickly to any complaints through the available agencies.

7) EE says the national department also struggles to spend its infrastructure budget. But the Education Department should not be building schools at all. This is the job of the Department of Public Works. As deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin conceded recently: "The Department of Public Works is in a near dysfunctional state." He said this during a departmental briefing on his department's Eastern Cape school building programme.

He also admitted that the department does not have the capacity to manage the construction of schools, which is one of its key mandates. In order to get any construction done, the Department of Education is exceeding its mandate by moving into the school building arena itself. If it were left to national Public Works, nothing would happen, as we learnt to our great detriment in Grabouw early in 2012, where the Province was forced to wait years for the transfer of a crucial site upon which to build an urgently needed new school.

8) EE describes it as "strange" that I "reach back" to the 2008 draft Norms and Standards issued by Naledi Pandor and claims that Motshekga published a new draft in 2009 and 2012. It then refers to a website which makes no mention, as far as I and others could ascertain, of the 2009 and 2012 drafts. If these were indeed compiled and "published", they were certainly not circulated to the Western Cape Education Department. I would like more detail of where these alleged drafts were published. Only the 2008 and 2013 versions were circulated. And EE itelf, in all its statements, holds up the 2008 version compiled under Naledi Pandor's leadership as the model, while rejecting Motshekga's January 2013 revision.

9) EE argues that its main reason for championing "norms and standards" are the schools that have no water, toilet, electricity, or fences. Well, if they are genuinely concerned about these things, as we all are, they do not need Norms and Standards to achieve them. In fact, given the wording of Section 5A of the South African Schools Act, Norms and Standards can NOT focus exclusively on water, toilets, electricity and fences.

There are other ways to deal with the breaches without treading on the treacherous terrain of "norms and standards". Schools without adequate water and sanitation are breaking laws that already exist, such as the Water Service Act 108 of 1997. Ironically, the 2008 Norms and Standards do not even set benchmarks for water and sanitation, precisely because these are already dealt with in other laws and regulations. 

10) Rather than spending money on a misdirected campaign for infrastructural "norms and standards", it would be far better to run a project to install solar panels at schools that still do not have electricity. It would also be good to hear EE saying a lot more about the constant and repeated vandalism of school infrastructure, particularly fences and electrical installations.

EE must accept that they are not the only people who care deeply about education in South Africa and they do not have a monopoly on morality or judgement or insight. I will always defend their right to organise and to protest, but it would help if they got their facts right and targeted the right issues and individuals. 

Statement issued by Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, July 29 2013

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