Education department's legal woes far from over

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Storm clouds loom over basic education's 'inadequate' standards and unmet deadlines, writes Victoria John.

The wave of litigation that flooded the basic ­education department last year could turn into a tsunami this year, educationists and an already stormy start to 2013 strongly suggest.

Proudly announcing the improved matric pass rate two weeks ago, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga repeatedly pleaded with the nation to "close [off] last year ... peacefully".

But education activists expressed outrage just days later, when Motshekga gazetted draft norms and standards for school infrastructure, which they denounced as wildly inadequate, making the minister's hopes of legal peace in 2013 look like wishful thinking.

Non-governmental organisation Equal Education, responsible for forcing Motshekga to publish the norms, said it would be prepared to go back to court to secure decent norms (see Motshekga's draft norms flout Constitution).

But this is only the first of the new year's looming legal clouds. Textbooks, school admissions, closures, absent teachers and classroom furniture are certain to feature in both new and continuing litigation.

Three court orders later, most Limpopo pupils have textbooks, but reports are trickling in of schools that are still going without, rights group Section27 said. The basic education department had assured these schools that their outstanding textbooks would be delivered by the end of last week, said Nikki Stein, an attorney at the group.

Section27 will now write to the department to follow up this shortfall.

The legal temperature will rise further when the Constitutional Court hears the arguments in longstanding conflicts on school admissions, centred on who has the final say in declaring a school full, the school governing bodies or the provincial education departments.

In December, the Supreme Court of Appeal overturned an earlier high court judgment when it ruled that Rivonia Primary School's governing body was within its rights to refuse admission to a grade one pupil on the grounds that the school was full.

Who has the final say?
The Gauteng education department has filed an application to the Constitutional Court to contest this ruling. Motshekga herself weighed in on the case last week, saying that if this application was unsuccessful, she would change the law because she had a public duty to ensure that every school pupil had a place at school.

School closures also remain unresolved. The uproar over the Western Cape's decision to close 20 schools resulted in the provincial and national education departments being hauled to court in December by the South African Democratic Teachers Union in the province and 17 of the schools.

The province was interdicted from closing them. But the interdict was granted pending a judicial review, the date of which the Western Cape department said should be set in the next few months.

Abysmal conditions at Moshesh Senior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape are the grounds of yet more legal action to come in 2013, after the Equal Education Law Centre filed court papers in November.

The papers detail horrendous hostel facilities, the physical abuse of learners by teachers, a lack of textbooks in some subjects and absent staff. The respondents, including the basic education department, are opposing the application and a date for the hearing would be set soon, the centre said.

No desks to sit at
Also in the Eastern Cape, pupils learning in classrooms without desks and chairs spurred the Legal Resources Centre, on behalf of the Centre for Child Law, into action. The matter was settled out of court last year, tying the department to deadlines it must still meet this year to avoid further action.

By this week, about 600 desks and chairs to three schools were due for delivery and the department has until June 30 to supply furniture for other affected schools.

But at the time of going to print, only 200 desks and chairs had been delivered to two of the three applicant schools.

Even more worrying, the centre said, the department had "not complied with the court order because it hasn't told schools they need to submit their furniture needs to the department by January 21, five days away".

The national and Eastern Cape departments did not respond to requests for comment.

Picture credit: Mail & Guardian Online

  • Victoria John studied at Rhodes University. This article was published on Mail & Guardian Online.