Back to school, but it’s bums on buckets and beer crates for pupils
It’s back to school on Wednesday, and many children will be sitting on beer crates, hard floors, buckets and concrete building blocks.
There are 6,567 schools with a shortage of school furniture, according to a presentation by deputy education minister Enver Surty to parliament in November. This means a quarter of SA’s 23,796 state schools are without adequate desks and chairs.
Equal Education researcher Hopolang Selebalo said the advocacy NGO had visited rural schools where pupils “sit on the floor, or sit with books on their laps and squeeze into spaces”.
In November, Surty said the department was short of 1.16 million units of school furniture, which is education department-speak for chairs and tables. The target for the financial year, which ends in March, was for provinces to provide 643,159 of these items.
The Legal Resources Centre, the NGO that fought the Eastern Cape education department for four years from 2012 to force it to better provide furniture, said the lack of furniture led to health problems, since children sit on a cold floor. The situation also added to disciplinary problems.
According to the parliamentary presentation, the Free State, North West and Limpopo provincial education departments had not provided a single new desk or chair to schools. Gauteng, which is short of 437,543 pieces of furniture, had only delivered 88,900 items.
The Western Cape was the closest to meeting its target, having delivered two-thirds of what was required.
The portfolio committee was told that a lack of funding was the chief cause of the furniture shortage, along with furniture being discarded instead of repaired.
In the presentation, Surty said that KwaZulu-Natal, for example, had no allocation for school furniture in its budget. This meant schools had to buy furniture from their per-pupil allocations. This is money that is meant to cover textbooks, stationery and other bills.
Times Select asked the education department why there was such a shortage of furniture.
Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said there were numerous problems, including poor furniture maintenance by schools, communities removing furniture from schools, and incorrect figures provided by the education department on how much furniture was really needed.
“You will find it is used for a funeral and makes its way into a community. We appeal to community members to return school chairs. It will be the same community looking at us and saying our kids are sitting on bricks and buckets,” he said.
Mhlanga said that while the figure provided to parliament was legitimate and came from the provinces, closer inspection found anomalies. He said numbers given by provincial departments on how many desks or textbooks were needed were often incorrect and overstated the true needs because they wanted to have spares in supply.
Also, he said, principals are given a budget per pupil, and thus have an incentive to overstate the number of pupils at a school.
Hildegard Boshoff, a DA member of the parliamentary portfolio committee, said she too didn’t trust provincial department figures, and claimed the departments made the picture appear better than it was.
She said that on parliamentary oversight visits to schools she saw broken furniture lying in a yard, but it was recorded in the stock register as functional because schools were told by officials to falsify numbers.
“They are afraid to speak out because they get victimised,” she charged.
A solution to the problem, Mhlanga said, was using the department of environmental affairs to provide furniture made from alien vegetation that had been removed. It emerged in parliament that much furniture made by the department was sitting in warehouses and available for use.
The department recently signed a memorandum with its environmental, labour and correctional services counterparts for prisoners to fix broken furniture.
Boshoff said that when the portfolio committee asked for concrete commitments on how resolve issues it was told “we have got a plan in place”.
“We just don’t seem to get the details [from education officials].”
If they wanted to know more about a particular province, or question numbers provided, MPs were told to write to the provincial MEC. But Boshoff said MECs will never answer a member of parliament because they have no authority over them.
She said there were commitments to fix things by officials to resolve issues given in parliament, but, in her experience, these were not acted on.
Boshoff, a former teacher, said: “We are creating a generation that is going to be totally lost. The majority of learners don’t get the education they deserve.”..