By Penny Vinjevold
Head of Education in the Western Cape
The Western Cape Education Department has entered into a public consultation process on whether to close 27 schools in the province.
The aim of the closures is to improve opportunties for learners by placing them in schools that are better equipped to provide quality education.
School closures are not unusual, nor are they unique to the Western Cape. The department builds new schools, expands and replaces existing schools, and considers schools for closure every year to meet changing needs in education.
Education departments in other provinces respond similarly to their changing environments.
For example, more than 1 000 schools closed their doors scross the country between 2006 to 2010, according to the Department of Basic Education’s Annual Survey for Ordinary Schools (2009/10). In 2011 alone, over 100 schools were closed across the country.
The reasons for these changes include ongoing urbanisation, migration within urban areas, and changing demands for different types of schools, for example, increased demand for high schools and schools for technical training.
The department has to manage its limited resources carefully and sensitively to ensure that the education system as a whole improves access to quality education, especially for our poorest learners.
Change is never easy. We have to implement change sensitively and for this reason the department follows prescribed procedures that ensure extensive public consultation.
The procedures are based on the requirements of the South African Schools Act and national Guidelines for the Rationalisation of Small or Non-Viable Schools.
The national guidelines note that larger and better resourced schools will contribute to development and poverty alleviation in rural areas.
The WCED is applying national criteria to assess schools identified for possible closure.
They include, for example, learner numbers, the ability of the school to cover the curriculum, the condition of school infrastructure, and attracting and retaining teachers.
Education authorities provide resources based on the number of learners at the school. Larger schools have more resources, including teachers.
Smaller schools often have multigrade classes, with children in more than one grade in the same class. This typically applies in schools with less than 200 learners.
Teachers in small, rural schools use various techniques to teach multigrade classes. However, they cannot compete with larger, well-resourced schools with single-grade classes.
For example, a teacher with learners in seven grades in a single, multigrade classroom has to prepare and deliver 50 lessons a day to cover the same ground as a single grade school with classes for each grade. This is a major challenge.
We have many excellent multigrade teachers. We are sensitive to the memories and associations that people have for these schools.
However, we have to consider the best interests of the learners and whether these schools can compete with single-grade schools that are better equipped to cover the full curriculum.
Educationists agree that multigrade classes are not the best option. The department prefers to provide the best option wherever possible.
In some cases, the department has to consider whether it is worthwhile renovating schools in poor condition that are not viable. The better option is often to place learners in other schools. This applies in particular to property that the department does not own.
Attracting and retaining teachers in rural areas is an ongoing challenge. The WCED pays incentives to teachers to do so.
Teachers at larger rural schools enjoy more support from their colleagues than those in small rural schools with only one or two classes. They also enjoy greater access to communities of practice.
The WCED considered all these factors carefully before proposing the closure of 27 schools to the provincial Education Minister.
The schools include 20 schools in rural districts. Most of these schools have to rely on multigrade teaching when better options are available at other schools.
Seven of the schools are in urban areas. Three are primary schools with declining numbers where learners can attend neighbouring schools.
Learners at a fourth primary school that is repeatedly vandalised could also attend nearby schools. The department has to ask whether it is worth repeatedly repairing this school when better alternatives are available.
Consistent underperformance and extremely poor infrastructure are among the reasons why the department would like to close three high schools in the greater Cape Town area. The department can accommodate these learners in better, safer learning environments where they are more likely to succeed.
The procedures involved in closing schools start with a review of school provisioning by district officials each year, in line with national and provincial guidelines.
The department proposes closures to the provincial Education Minister, if it believes that this is necessasy. The department only does this if it is possible to place all learnersand teachers in suitable, safe and better learning environments.
The Minister’s task is to interrogate the proposals in consultation with the schools concerned, inititially with school governing bodies and then via public meetings if the Minister decides to proceed with the process.
The Minister will consider each proposed closure on a case by case basis after carefully reviewing all representations received, before making his final decision, in line with the South African Schools Act.
He will base his decisions on the best interests of the learners, after extensive consultation with all roleplayers concerned.