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Mud to Bricks

Authors: Conrad Barberton and Carmen Abdoll
Date: 2014-01-31

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Mud to Bricks, a publication of the Pretoria University Law Press, is a detailed review of the state of school infrastructure and government plans to address the need for infrastructural improvement. The report reveals marked under-expenditure on the Schools Infrastructure Backlogs Grant, and analysis shows that, unless the pace of implementation can be improved, the Department of Basic Education is likely to fall far short of its critical commitments.

On February 4 2011, following court action, the DBE committed to expenditure of R8.2 billion for Schools Infrastructure between 1 April 2011 and 31 March 2014, which funding was passed to provinces in the form of the School Infrastructure Backlogs Grant (SIBG). As the right to education is enshrined in our constitution, the failure of government to deliver basic infrastructure for quality schooling has come to the fore.

A substantial backlog in the provision of basic buildings and services to meet need in the education sector exists, but it was not until 2013 that a final set of minimum norms and standards for public school infrastructure was agreed to by the DBE. These norms and standards came under harsh scrutiny for being extremely vague, so there was another agreement, sanctioned by the court, to release the new document by May 15th 2013. The Minister, being unable to meet this deadline, requested an extension, and on September 12th the final document was released. The Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure was gazetted on November 29th 2013.

The report investigates the provincial and national funding, and shows how the under-expenditure on the nationally overseen SIBG, as well as under-expenditure within provinces on their own allocation for infrastructure, was largely due to poor planning and insufficient capacity in the infrastructure management units. Notably, it is made clear that the two-year consecutive under-expenditure on the SIBG (between 2011/12 and 2012/13) could be attributed to the reality that the national Department of Basic Education lacks the capacity to manage an infrastructure improvement project of this scale. The SIBG achieved expenditure of around 10 per cent in 2011/12, and around 41 per cent in 2012/13. Based on this, the report raises questions about Cabinet’s decision to place this project under the DBE.

At the current rate of delivery, backlogs will only be remedied by 2023/24. The ability of government to manage an infrastructure project of this nature remains questionable, but if contracts could be managed – by means of contracting out to large construction companies to either work directly on projects or to manage the sub-contracting – this time to completion could be substantially shortened. The study also shows the importance of monitoring and evaluating progress against court orders and out of court settlements to ensure that the right to basic education is made real.

Schools infrastructure spending ultimately lies within the sphere of provincial government. Provinces are responsible for the managing and spending of these funds, but agents such as the public works departments are often contracted to handle this function. Over and above the equitable share, national government allocated substantial conditional grants funding through the EIG. This conditional grant expenditure is managed through the provinces, with national DBE playing an oversight function. Finally the SIBG, a nationally-administered conditional grant to address identified backlogs that is managed largely through agents including the DBSA, Mvula Trust, Eskom and a number of provincial departments, is being implemented. This final stream poses the biggest concern in terms of delivery failures, but concerns also arise over a declining rate of allocation to infrastructure within the equitable share, which threatens the capacity for maintenance of infrastructure, as well as the on-going commitment by the provinces to maintain schools.

The study shows a declining number of public schools in each of the provinces, which is concerning as this net decline includes the building of new schools. Although no formal explanation was given, it is assumed that this decline is due to a process of rationalisation, which includes the closing of small rural schools, and is thought to be driven, in part, by rural-urban migration. What is concerning is that there is no policy to define the process of this so-called rationalisation, and the resulting spatial provision does not seem to consider a detailed needs analysis in any meaningful way. This has concerning repercussions for children, who are forced to travel further, without adequate learner transport, or to enter boarding schools, the social considerations of which do not seem to have been assessed.

Although the overall number of schools is important from an accessibility perspective, the study found that the total number of classrooms, as well as the geographic distribution of these classrooms, is a far more critical determinant of learning conditions. This is the only way of establishing issues such as class size and the quantity of multi-grade teaching – aspects that directly affect the quality of learning and teaching, as well as individual school planning and issues of fair accessibility to education of a certain standard.

It is interesting to note that since 2000 these details were not captured in the DBE publications National Education Statistics and School Realities, which instead began to capture the ratio of learners to schools, a measure with far less qualitative information. Furthermore, the ratio is highly dependent on the large numeric of small schools. Thus, closing say one hundred small schools will have ten times the impact on the ratio than if the province builds ten new large schools. Thus there is a perverse incentive to "rationalise” and show an "improvement” in the learner school ratio, a concerning phenomenon.

Although planning by the provinces is apparent, the study found a lack of focus on quality considerations, and with the delay in the establishment of a nationally-accepted set of minimum norms and standards, this planning failed to consider the real need and the quality gap to a prescribed level. Reporting formats vary widely. Although some requirements are outlined in section 75 of the 1998 Norms and Standards for School Funding, which states that each PED must maintain an accurate, prioritised and annually updated database of school construction needs and undertake annually updated long-term construction projections, the study found that this was not being adhered to. Again, this points to a failure of DBE to enforce the existing Norms and Standards for School Funding.

The study focuses on the problem of inappropriate school structures, or mud schools. At the time of writing, the fact that a significant number of schools with inappropriate structures still existed shows a lack of commitment by government to redress past inequalities and provide equitable access. Further to this, the study could not find an accurate measure of the number of schools being targeted for improvement. The number varied, but in April 2013 the DBE reported 510 schools with inappropriate structures. This showed a lack of commitment to documenting and tracking the state of schools infrastructure. It was also found that many of these schools were closed, rather than improved, raising questions around accessibility.

Backlogs in basic services were analysed. In the Eastern Cape, it was found that as much as 19 per cent of schools lacked water and electricity provision, and that as much as 90 per cent of schools did not have library facilities. In the Free State the figure for lack of electricity and water was reported to be around 15 percent, and this declined slightly over the period from 2009 to 2011. Though Gauteng and the Western Cape could report near universal provision of water and electricity, the percentage of schools without library services were reported to be 41 and 47 per cent respectively. What is important to note is that there is virtually no improvement in service provision from 2009 to 2011, even taking into account a decline in the overall number of schools.

The study concludes that, given a lack of information, there is no real way to identify the true extent of the backlogs in schools, inappropriate schools structure, classrooms, basic services, furniture and facilities and maintenance. There was also evidence that the backlogs in most areas were worsening overall, and that budget provisions declining, exacerbating the situation.