On 16 October 2012, the Western Cape Minister of Education, Mr. Donald Grant announced the closure of 20 schools out of the 27 identified some months ago.  I responded to this announcement during a sitting of Western Cape Parliament today, on behalf of the ACDP.

Whilst it is always disappointing to hear that places of teaching and learning are to be closed, for whatever reason, we also must accept that the effective, efficient and sustainable management of public education necessarily includes balancing competing demands and priorities, which may sometimes result in difficult and even unpopular decisions, such as this, being made.  This is one of many complexities all political parties face when governing.  Given the need to balance these and other competing demands, the ACDP does not, in principle, oppose school closures per se, as long as all other intervention options have already been exhausted and only after thorough, open and transparent engagement with affected stake-holders.

Since the initial announcement was made a few months ago that up to 27 schools may be closed, the ACDP has been greatly concerned about three main issues – public participation, the criteria influencing the decision to close certain schools and how opponents to this announcement will present their position.

The ACDP expected that the decision-making process must not only be thorough in terms of the structure and depth of public consultation, and that it must target specific stake-holders including the school community (school management, the School Governing Body, learners and their parents), but that it needed a larger than normal dose of tangible sensitivity. Given the level of emotion and the concerns raised by so many following the announcement, it is clear that this has not been adequately achieved.

Several allegations are being made regarding the process, including that the Minister and WCED has not consulted enough with these role players, has not been sufficiently open and transparent with them regarding the motivations influencing the steps he is taking and that they were given insufficient time to consult internally and to prepare compelling responses.  It is of great concern that these linger even though the DA claim to have surpassed minimum required levels of public consultation, and that in other provinces, there is generally no public consultation when such decisions are made.  In this regard, the ACDP calls on Minister Grant to make the details of all factors impacting the decision to close each of the 20 schools, publically available for scrutiny.  Doing so will help dispel or confirm these allegations.  Further, if this process must be pursued in the future, we believe the criteria should be widely published for comment and agreement before the process begins, that the assessment should be conducted openly and transparently, and that this entire process should be concluded well before this time of the school year.

Notwithstanding the reasons for closure stated by the Minister, pursuing and exhausting all other intervention options, including improving financial, infrastructural and managerial support first, even when attendance numbers are low or dwindling, or too disconnected from the catchment communities, should have been a priority. We have not found evidence of this. The provision and maintenance of school infrastructure remains the states firstly, not the schools. We all know that dwindling and/or low enrolment numbers, and poor performance can be directly linked back to school infrastructure that is aging, insufficient or substandard to meet the needs of the school community, yet these are being cited as reasons for closing many of the 20 schools.

It is also true that schools are more than just cold buildings of teaching and learning.  Instead they are the home away from home for many, who spend most of the day there, most days of the week, for years on end.  The developmental histories of most rural settlements can be traced back to the first church and the first school. Such schools have had an important impact on generations in those communities. Even in urban settings and given our divided past, the vast majority of us have fond memories of our school lives, especially when we acknowledge how it helped shape who we are today as adults. To close such a school ignores this important legacy, and in some cases, will now deny individuals and communities that privilege into the future.

The ACDP is also concerned that the timing of this announcement has the potential of disrupting end-of-year preparations at the affected schools. Was this considered in the lead up to an announcement being made just weeks before year-end?  We also request that evidence be provided that moving teachers and learners actually fixes the fundamental problems and backlogs within our education system, especially within rural settings, rather than simply displacing them.

As has been established, schools have been closed in every province in South Africa over many years.  Reports confirm that since the year 2000, the Free State has closed over 1000 schools, over 200 have been closed in Mpumalanga, almost 600 in the Eastern Cape and over 600 in the North West province (to name a few) and that in the same period, only 49 schools were closed in the Western Cape, the majority when the ANC governed this province.  These facts make the ANC’s blanket opposition to the closing of these 20 schools, when it is seemingly based primarily on the argument that this represents a ‘war against poor, black schools’ and that war is not being waged against former ‘model C’ schools in a similar position, utterly inaccurate, sensationalist and irresponsible.  Moreover, it should also be noted that COSATU, their tripartite partner, proposed the closing of four of the 20 schools (Cape Times, 18 October).

That said, the ACDP will not hesitate to oppose any initiative that is motivated by racism.  Given the long history of grossly unequal education provision defined along racial lines, in the Western Cape and across South Africa, and that this legacy continues to deeply effect our youth and impact the Western Capes sustained development and economic growth trajectory, the ACDP will not support initiatives that serve to perpetuate these race based inequalities in any way.

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