Why we need minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure

Equal Education's Brad Brockman's argues that Helen Zille is wrong to press for just guidelines

Over the past three weeks, Equal Education (EE) has been engaged in a debate with Premier Helen Zille over the need for minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. Our opposing views can be summarised as follows.

Equal Education is in favour of norms and standards for school infrastructure. We believe that it is the best way to ensure that all schools have access to water, electricity, properly built classrooms and decent toilets. Over time norms and standards will do this by obliging provincial education departments to provide these services and resources and by empowering students and parents to hold them legally accountable for doing so.

Zille is not in favour of having norms and standards. She describes these as being "unachievable, unaffordable and educationally misdirected." Instead, Zille argues for school infrastructure "guidelines", and says that more effort and resources should rather be spent on improving the quality of teaching.

In one sense the debate between EE and Zille is academic, in that the Bhisho High Court has now ordered, and Minister Angie Motshekga has consented, that norms and standards for school infrastructure be adopted by 30 November 2013. So we will have norms and standards, this year.

However, the debate is still important because once norms and standards are adopted they will be applicable and enforceable across the country. Provincial education departments will have to ensure that their schools comply with the norms and standards, and students and parents will need to know what they are entitled to.

Zille bases her argument against norms and standards on a 2008 draft document, prepared by then Minister Naledi Pandor. This is despite the fact that Minister Motshekga has already published two drafts of her own, and a third is on the way. Zille's attachment to the 2008 draft can only be explained by its usefulness to her argument against any norms and standards.

Zille's argument that norms and standards are unaffordable is based on the 2008 draft, which she says Treasury would not approve. As evidence, Zille cites a telephone conversation with an unnamed Treasury official. In response EE has provided official documents to the contrary, including the DBE's own 2009/2010 Annual Report and statements made to Parliament in 2010 by the Director General.

Zille has also said it would cost R8-10 billion to ensure that schools in the Western Cape comply with norms and standards, and has said this is unaffordable. In response EE has asked how she could say so, having approved the construction of the Cape Town Stadium at a cost of R4bn while Mayor of Cape Town. We also ask Premier Zille, if providing resources to our poorest schools is "unaffordable", what her plan for the youth of South Africa is. If decent schools are unaffordable, is the Constitution unaffordable?

It is worth noting that while Zille is opposed to the cost of having norms and standards, the DA in the Eastern Cape - the province with the worst school infrastructure in the country - is actively campaigning for proper toilets for 340 000 learners in the province, so as "to restore the dignity of these learners without delay".

In criticising Norms and Standards as being impractical, Zille cites an overly prescriptive section of Pandor's 2008 draft to claim that binding norms and standards would hamstring provinces and open them to frivolous litigation. She cites a part of that draft which prescribes different strength light bulbs for different parts of a school. Nobody needs norms and standards to choose light bulbs. That would indeed be crazy, but it is not going to happen. All we expect Minister Motshekga's norms and standards to prescribe is that the 3,500 schools without electricity get adequate lighting in every classroom.

While Zille agrees that "a minimum infrastructure platform is needed to achieve quality education", she argues that "guidelines" rather than norms and standards will do the job. Zille speaks of "Angie's draft guidelines". This is telling. In fact finalised guidelines have been policy since mid-2012. The fact that a Premier doesn't know this says a lot about how seriously guidelines are taken. Guidelines are inadequate for at least three reasons.

First, guidelines are not binding and therefore cannot be enforced. This means that provincial education departments can simply choose to ignore them. It is for this reason that the National Development Plan calls for the Department‘s school infrastructure guidelines to be legislated "to ensure that they are adhered to".

Second, while guidelines will allow provinces, districts and schools to identify infrastructure backlogs, they will not necessarily lead to these backlogs being addressed. This is because provinces will not be required to use the guidelines when planning and budgeting for school infrastructure improvement.

Thirdly, because they are non-enforceable, students and parents will not be able to use the guidelines to hold their district or provincial education department accountable for providing them with the services and resources contained in the guidelines. Provincial education departments will also not be required to report to the Minister on their progress in meeting the guidelines.

Zille is right to emphasise the importance of improving the quality of teaching, but wrong to pit this against improving school infrastructure. Both are important, and we can have both. If we prioritise education above stadiums and arms there is no reason to deny children both good teachers and an adequate learning environment. Having access to basic services and resources is fundamental to quality learning and teaching. EE has provided considerable evidence to substantiate this claim, which Zille has not disputed.

Zille's argument that norms and standards are too costly and would paralyse the education bureaucracy is simply not true. The reality is that there is no law in South Africa to obligate the state to provide public schools with water, electricity, sufficient toilets, adequate classrooms, and thereafter libraries, laboratories and computer centres. That's what norms and standards are about. That's what EE supports. That is what Minister Motshekga has agreed to. And that's what Premier Zille is opposed to.

Brad Brockman is General Secretary of Equal Education.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.

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