Blog: Equal Education

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March 23, 2015

Student Transport Vital to Unlocking the Promise of Education in South Africa

Posted by Katie King, JD '16

I’ve always loved school. Starting from a young age, I even loved the journey to get there. It was time spent with my siblings—an opportunity to tease each other and a chance to get a taste of what felt like the grown-up responsibility of walking alone.

The students in Nqutu, a small, rural area in eastern South Africa, are often just as excited as I was about school. However, as I heard during a trip there this past January with the International Human Rights Clinic, the morning starts for many of them at 4 or 5 a.m., when they wake to fetch water, let out their family’s cows, and help their younger siblings get ready. They then set off on a walk that often exceeds 10 miles.

Some students in Nqutu walk 20 miles to and from school. See more images from the Clinic's recent trip in this slideshow.

Some students in Nqutu walk 20 miles to and from school. See more images from the Clinic’s recent trip in this slideshow.

They tease each other and gossip as I once did, doing their best to protect their uniforms and textbooks from the dirt and weather. But, as the students told us, by the time they arrive at school two hours later, their energy has worn off—and they are fully aware, as they do their best to pay attention in class, that they will have to repeat the journey all over again at the end of the day.

Factor in the additional risks of robbery, rape, snakebites, and treacherous river crossings, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that my five-year-old self would ever have been able to make it to school, let alone focus in class or have the time and energy to complete my homework, in similar conditions. I arrived well-rested and ready to learn. Can the same be said of Nqutu’s students?

Since 2009, the South African government has dragged its heels on finalizing a national scholar transport policy that would address the education system’s many transport-related problems. This is no small matter. As a result of this failure to act, the government is not fulfilling a fundamental right in South Africa’s constitution: the right to a basic education.

Our partners, Equal Education and Equal Education Law Centre, have been campaigning for a range of improvements in the educational system, taking on everything from schools without water and electricity to access to textbooks. In 2014, their student-powered movement shifted its focus to another critical piece of the puzzle: safe, affordable, and reliable school transport.

Not only has the national government failed to fix the problems it itself acknowledged in the draft national scholar transport policy, but the KwaZulu-Natal government has ignored the legal responsibilities it previously set for itself. Provincial policy requires KwaZulu-Natal to provide transportation subsidies to learners who walk more than 3 kilometers to school—a distance easily exceeded by dozens of students we talked to in our short time in Nqutu. None of the students we spoke with were receiving this assistance.

Principals told us they had submitted applications to the provincial government and never heard anything back. Determined to make sure children receive an education, some adults who live closer to school have opened their homes to students from more remote villages. Others drive trucks with more than 20 students packed into the back.

These stop-gap solutions are unsustainable; the government has the responsibility to act. Without a safe, reliable way to get to school, students’ ability to learn is compromised, and education’s promise of a better, more equitable future goes unfulfilled.

The solution may have to be multi-faceted. As we learned on our visit, though many of the difficulties students face are common, there are also different obstacles from school to school; one school may simply need a bus, while another may have learners who are so dispersed that school boarding facilities are the best response. Still, such complexities are not sufficient reason for continuing to stall—especially not when South Africa’s students, in the face of so many challenges, continue to embark upon their long walk to education every day.

View slideshow from the Clinic’s recent trip to Nqutu

Katie King, JD ’16, has been working with the International Human Rights Clinic since last September on issues related to the right to education in South Africa. She spent her 1L summer interning at Equal Education Law Centre in Cape Town.

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October 24, 2014

School Underperformance Reflects Government Underperformance in South Africa

Posted by Elizabeth Loftus, JD '16

In the coming month, all across South Africa, over half a million students will be sitting down to take the National Senior Certificate exam. Some will be sitting at individual desks in state-of-the-art classrooms. But others will be sitting on cinder blocks and at shared desks in buildings that lack water, electricity, and toilets. Wherever they are, students will be taking the same high-stakes test, one that will determine their future. Students who pass will graduate from high school and gain access to higher education opportunities. Students who fail will not.

Courtesy: Equal Education

Photo courtesy of Equal Education

The exam has a broader purpose, as well: the South African government uses pass rates to identify public schools that lag behind national performance standards. Institutions at which less than 60% of students pass the exam are designated “underperforming.” Underperformance trends in the South African school system reveal startling inequalities and show that the Department of Basic Education’s own underperformance in addressing this critical issue is inexcusable.

Following last year’s exam, 1,407 schools across South Africa qualified as underperforming. The poorest performing provinces were the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, which had pass rates 15%-20% lower than those in the majority of other provinces. Nearly half of the schools in the Eastern Cape failed to meet national performance standards. Shortcomings such as poor infrastructure, inadequate materials, overcrowding, and negligent management all suppress success in vulnerable schools. Not coincidentally, underperformance in the education system disproportionately affects learners in the poor, rural, historically black areas of the country.

Indeed, many of today’s challenges troublingly echo conditions of twenty-five years ago, when the legal framework for education existed to perpetuate racially separate and unequal education. Under the apartheid education system, black schools were designed to underperform in comparison to their white counterparts in order to keep black South Africans undereducated and capable of performing only unskilled, low-wage jobs. The measurable effects of this policy were severe: the government spent 10 times more on white schools than it did on black schools; while there were 18 white students per teacher, the ratio in black schools was 39 to 1; the standardized exam passage rate for blacks was less than one-half that of whites. It is shocking how little these figures have changed since the end of apartheid. In a visit to the Eastern Cape in 2013, community-based education NGOs found primary school classrooms with over 50 students and secondary school classes with over 100 students. Some schools have no electricity and lack desks, chairs, textbooks, and library facilities.

The persistent, systemic deficiency in school performance requires a coherent, national policy solution. But, rather than designing a coordinated response, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has largely overlooked underperformance as a problem in and of itself. National guidelines on improving school performance do not exist. At a more basic level, it is unclear that the DBE even fully appreciates the gravity of underperformance since it has failed to comply with monitoring, evaluation and remediation requirements outlined in the governing national legislation, the South African Schools Act (SASA). A recent example of the DBE’s inadequate approach is evident in the comparison of its 2013-2014 yearly action plan with its 2013-2014 year-end review. “Underperforming schools” appeared only twice in the action plan. The year-end review made only general references to underperforming schools, showing little follow-up on the action plan and providing almost no guidance for reform.

Luckily, groups like Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Center (EELC) have turned their attention to the cause and have committed their considerable social resources to drawing others’ attention, as well. In a far-reaching approach, EE and EELC have undertaken a variety of advocacy strategies in Parliament, the court system, communities, and schools. EE has organized policymaker visits to underperforming schools. In 2012, in response to students’ call for help, EE launched litigation to compel authorities to address the dire learning conditions at Moshesh Senior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape. Recently, EE and EELC produced a shadow report for the parliamentary oversight committee on education, pushing the government to hold the DBE accountable for its shortcomings. All of these steps are important in forcing the DBE to acknowledge the problem and meet its obligations, such as those enumerated in the SASA. Only by living up to its own standards can the DBE help schools live up to theirs.

Elizabeth Loftus, JD ‘16, is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic currently working on education-related issues in South Africa, in partnership with EELC. She has previously worked on projects related to South Africa as a member of the Harvard Law and International Development Society.

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December 18, 2013

Winning on School Infrastructure, Honoring Mandela

Posted by Susan Farbstein

As South Africa and the world remember Nelson Mandela, there is perhaps no greater way to honor his legacy than to continue the struggle for social justice.  A quality education for all children must be at the core of such efforts, as Mandela himself recognized.  “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” he said.  In the week before his death, real progress was made on the education front in South Africa.

Photo courtesy of Equal Education

Members of Equal Education march to the Department of Education in Pretoria to demand norms and standards. (Photo courtesy of Equal Education)

After three years of sustained campaigning by our South African partners, Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga finally released binding norms and standards for school infrastructure on November 29th.  The norms represent a significant victory for future generations of South African students, and for South Africa itself. 

The norms—which are legally binding—mandate substantial changes to public schools across the country, many of which must be realized on a relatively short time horizon.  Mud schools must be replaced within three years; schools that currently lack water, power, and toilets must be provided such facilities within three years; all schools must have classrooms, electric connectivity, and security measures within seven years; and all schools must have libraries and laboratories within ten years.  As a first step, provincial ministers will be required to develop school infrastructure plans within a year, and then report annually on their progress towards implementing the norms. 

There are still serious concerns.  The norms do not require provincial ministers to make either their plans, or their progress reports, available to the public.  The norms also contain a potentially worrisome legal loophole, in the form of language stating that they must only be implemented “as far as reasonably practicable.”  Equally troubling are some of the specific provisions, such as the proposed minimum number of toilets per student, which falls well short of international standards recommended by UNICEF and the WHO.  

Nevertheless, the norms carry the promise of tangibly improving the education, and therefore the lives, of millions of South African schoolchildren.  Our partners have fought long and hard to secure decent school infrastructure for all of South Africa’s students.  The norms victory would never have been possible without the advocacy work of EE student and parent members, who joined voices to ensure that their demands could not be ignored.  Their collaborative and creative efforts demonstrate that—as Mandela teaches us—while justice and equality may be a long time coming, a group of dedicated and committed people can transform a society.  Our Clinic is proud to support their work.

For more information, read Equal Education’s statement on the win, along with its statement after the death of Nelson Mandela. You can also find out about the Clinic’s work in South Africa here.

November 22, 2013

A Step Closer to Basic School Infrastructure for South African Students

Posted by Melissa Shube, JD '15

After soliciting feedback from hundreds of South African students and parents, Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) have submitted comments on the South African Minister of Basic Education’s second draft of minimum regulations for public school infrastructure. While the submission recognizes that the Minister’s draft represents important progress, EE and EELC raise significant concerns with respect to the draft’s long timeline for implementation. As Moto Singulakka, a Grade 10 learner at Oscar Mpetha High School in the Western Cape, asked, “What about now? Where are the learners going to learn?”

Photo courtesy of Equal Education Law Centre

Photo courtesy of Equal Education Law Centre

The legacy of Apartheid is still palpable in South Africa’s education system, where many rural and township schools lack basic infrastructure to provide students with a safe environment conducive to learning. Binding norms and standards will help promote equality in education for South Africa’s historically disadvantaged students by requiring all public schools to meet minimum thresholds in relation to physical facilities.

Recognizing that adequate norms and standards are desperately needed, EE has been campaigning for over three years for the development, release, and improvement of these norms. We at the International Human Rights Clinic have for the past year provided legal support to this campaign, which is based on student concerns about a range of infrastructure challenges, including overcrowded and collapsing classrooms, unsanitary toilets that make students sick, inadequate water supply, insufficient electricity, and a painful dearth of science labs, libraries, computer access, and sports fields. Mbali Cezula, a student from iQonce High School in the Eastern Cape, explained that there is a “lack of proper classrooms in my school. There are few buildings [and] some look like township slums. They are not safe as they could fall anytime.”

The regulations for school infrastructure are long overdue. A 2007 amendment to the South African Schools Act of 1996 empowered the Minister to implement binding norms and standards for public school infrastructure. However, such regulations were never released, despite the department’s 2010 proclamation that “[e]quity in the provision of an enabling physical teaching and learning environment is therefore a constitutional right and not just a desirable state.” Continue Reading…

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