In this 2004 back-to-school image, Siyabonga Mahlangu, then a Grade 5 pupil at Pholosho Senior Primary School in Alexandra, was pictured moving chairs and desks with fellow pupils. The sadness is that, for many children, 12 years later, theres no such stability; Carlisle Bridge Primary School and Riebeeck East Combined School in the Eastern Cape are disturbing examples of this. Picture: Mndeni Vilakazi

Procedure in the Eastern Cape is being flouted and stakeholders don't know what closures and mergers mean for them, writes Tebogo Monama

The guidelines for the rationalisation of small or non-viable schools, published in 2009, are meant to improve access in rural areas. According to the national Education Department, merger and closure processes must be approached as a provincial project, and must be completed within a set time frame.

Before embarking on the merger project, the department should explore ways to attract and retain pupils in rural and farm schools and determine the support required by pupils and teachers moving from small rural and farm schools to larger merged schools.

The provincial MEC is supposed to give schools written notice on a proposed closure or merger, and offer reasons for this. The school then has 30 days to respond and put forward reasons against the proposals. The department then has to hold public hearings to explain the process and how this will affect stakeholders.

But Equal Education’s head in the Eastern Cape Luzuko Sidimba said this had not been happening.

The Eastern Cape Education Department has plans to close and merge schools because of low enrolment numbers, migration and infrastructure issues.

Sidimba said instead of written notices, principals were informed by word of mouth by district officials that their schools were going to be closed or merged.

“From what we see, there is no proper execution plan from the department. There are no proper guidelines for principals and teachers’ job security. For instance, what happens to principals when two schools are merged?

“The department also does not discuss with parents and communities what the closure or merger of the schools means to them,” Sidimba said.

In his budget speech in April, Eastern Cape Education MEC Mandla Makupula said this year, 2 077 schools in the province are categorised small and unviable, and the department would issue notices of intent to rationalise to 1 944 primary schools and 132 secondary schools.

The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) is also worried about the way in which the rationalisation of schools happens – especially the impact on teachers and their job security.

“Many of our members are regarded as displaced educators even though their schools were closed by the department.

"We can say for a fact that not all the principals are guaranteed their jobs after the closure of these schools,” said the union’s Sindisile Zamisa.

“Another concern on the closure of schools in the Eastern Cape is the lack of transport for those children from the closed schools, let alone the transfer of school funds to the closed school accounts which is prone to attract corruption.”

He said another big worry was that in areas where the department promised to build boarding schools, “construction of hostels for boarding and lodging remains a pie in the sky”.

“We are not happy. Schools are just given letters (asking them to) indicate (to the department in writing) why their schools should not be closed due to the lesser number of children in those schools. Some of these schools were initiatives of the communities when they were built, but now our department is excited to close them.”

He said the union advised principals to engage with communities once they received rationalisation letters. “Our view about this matter is that the issue should be tabled in the Provincial Education Labour Relations Council for we believe all stakeholders are located there, but as usual when we raise those matters, we are accused that we want to co-manage the department, which is not true.”

Sidimba said they were sceptical about multi-grade teaching.

“The current curriculum CAPS requires different outcomes for different grades. So with multi-grade teaching it is hard to achieve that.”

Sidimba said the organisation understood that multi-grade teaching was sometimes necessary in schools with low enrolments, but he was worried about foundation-phase education.

“Learners in the foundation phase need as much individual attention as possible. If teachers cannot give them that, it might have lasting effects on their education and grasp of concepts. At some point, learners also have to switch from mother tongue education to English. How does a teacher effectively do that in a multi-grade classroom?”

This is echoed in a 2013 National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) report on teaching and learning in rural schools, which found that “there was some degree of differentiated teaching in 41 percent of classes observed, but this seemed to be effective in only 11 percent".

“This means most teachers observed made no attempt to provide different learning experiences, appropriate to each of the respective grade levels incorporated into the class.

“In other words, in 59 percent of these classes, teachers presented the same material and the same exercise to all children, regardless of their ages and grade levels.”

Education expert Professor Elizabeth Henning said while multi-grade teaching was necessary in some areas, it was hard to execute.

“It is a tiring thing for teachers; when the one group works the other one is taught. You need a teacher with experience of all the grades that are grouped together.”

Henning said teachers also needed great management skills to be able to run multi-grade classrooms.

“I think teachers would need coaching and mentoring to learn specific skills of teaching and assessment,” she stressed.

Dr Nic Spaull, an education researcher at the universities of Stellenbosch and Johannesburg, agrees that multi-grade teaching is hard, especially in the foundation phase.

“The main skill which children need to learn in the first three years of primary school is the ability to read for meaning. If Grade 1, 2 and 3 pupils are all in the same classroom with one teacher, it becomes particularly difficult to individualise instruction.

“Even in one grade, it’s difficult to pitch your lesson at the right level and to put students in appropriate groups, but now when there are three grades all in the same classroom, this is all the more difficult.”

But he said the system had some advantages.

“The teacher usually stays with the same learners over a number of years given that multiple grades are in the same classroom."

Still, “current teacher training institutions do not properly prepare teachers for a multi-grade schooling environment".

“It really does require an additional set of skills to teach effectively when there is such a wide age and ability range in the same classroom.”