Poorer schools could get access to facilities like swimming pools and laboratories if the sharing plan is implemented. Picture: Itumeleng English

Some give Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi’s plan to merge schools a “Fail”, writes Sheree Bega.

Johannesburg - The small library at Robert Dlamini’s* school had to be “killed” a long time ago – the government could no longer pay the school librarian. She was sent back to the classroom, and now the once-popular library serves as a storeroom.

Down the corridor, the school’s makeshift science lab stands discarded and useless. “There is no scientific apparatus and no instruments for the children to use,” says Dlamini, the school’s principal. “The equipment is very old. Sometimes we try to go to nearby schools here in Soweto who have better labs and try to share our resources.”

And for pupils hungry for sport, there are only two offerings: soccer and netball. “There are no facilities for other sports,” says Dlamini about his school, tucked away in the impoverished heart of Soweto. “Nothing at all.”

But a hint of wistfulness enters his voice when he speaks about the “grand” new plan announced by Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng Education MEC, to merge poor township schools with their well-muscled suburban counterparts.

If the ambitious Lesufi realises his dream, ultimately these unified schools of the near future will have one principal, one school governing body (SGB) and a single bank account, as well as share resources, facilities and staff.

“There are so many things we need – decent laboratories, libraries and sporting facilities. My wish list would never end. I would love my school to join a wealthy school, but I don’t know how this plan is going to work. There are no wealthy schools close to mine. We are separated by distance.”

The devil in Lesufi’s grand plan to root out inequality in the 2 000 public schools may very well be in the details. Just months at the helm of education, he has already announced a raft of new education reforms – from paperless classrooms to exempting teachers from tax to lure more to the beleaguered profession. But it is the school merger, what Lesufi refers to as the “hallmark of my administration”, that is attracting the most controversy.

“For us to deliver a quality education, a school in Sandown and a school in Alexandra must share their sporting facilities, their library, because I won’t have money to build a laboratory in Alex,” he stated last week, tabling his budget.

“Our motivation for twinning the schools is to maximise resources and efficiency and the desire to have quality education… it has nothing to do with politics.”

Tell that to Paul Colditz, the chief executive of the Federation for School Governing Bodies of SA. He believes Lesufi’s “Robin Hood” plan is not only unworkable but illegal.

“Every new politician on the block must have a new idea, so they come up with ideas that they haven’t thought through properly and that are in conflict with the law,” says Colditz dismissively.

Lesufi has announced that by January next year, 10 schools – two pairs in each of the metros – will have a merged SGB under this pilot project. By June, the next phase of the plan will kick in: for the pilot schools to share bank accounts.

“In terms of the law two schools are separate juristic entities and personalities,” says Colditz. “Yes, you can have partnerships, and we encourage those, but what he (Lesufi) wants to do is… destroy both schools by killing them and then creating a new school.

“Under our education policy, the community must take responsibility for its school. So you’ll have the parents of a school electing parents of a SGB for that particular school. Now if you have one SGB, how on earth will you make sure that the two campuses of this single school have fair representation on the SGB?

“You will have a majority of parents from one school elected to the SGB and they will concentrate on the interests of their school, not the interests of others. They won’t know them from a bar of soap… How would you feel if you are expected to share your computer with a guy across the street? It’s your property. I, as a parent, paid for the education of my child, for that computer.”

Lesufi says the education system can no longer afford the one-school-one-principal approach, and so he is looking for “one dynamic principal” who has the capability, talent, skill and qualification to lead two, or even three, schools “so that we can save on personnel costs”.

Consider that, when he tabled his R32.8 billion budget last week, he revealed that 78 percent of it will be ploughed into teacher’s salaries.

But why should parents fund schools that already receive the lion’s share of state funding, asks Colditz. Each pupil from a Quintile 1, 2 and 3 school, the poorest no-fee schools, are funded R1 059 a year from the state, versus learners from Quintile 4 and 5 schools – the richest – who receive R183 per learner from the government.

“If I’m a parent at a Quintile five school, I’m obliged to pay school fees. Now you are telling me to share those resources with a non-fee paying school that already gets a much higher allocation from the state. Already there is redress for those schools. How on earth do I fund them without prejudicing myself and my child’s education?”

He points to a bigger problem: a lack of leadership from the province that filters to teachers and principals. “They (the government) should focus on the real problems in those schools instead of taking away the focus of performance in schools that are doing well.”

Graeme Bloch, the visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Public and Development Management, wonders, too, if Lesufi’s plan will work, but likes the idea. “I like the attempt to end two school systems and needless differentiation, especially huge class differences,” he says. “There are huge inequalities we need to challenge and multiple learnings about each others’ conditions as South Africans.

“Can principals or teachers relate to all kids? I think the MEC is trying to challenge this but a clustering of schools does not challenge official complacency or resource inequalities. While SGBs need to get more involved, they cannot resolve all government’s challenges.”

Daya Chetty, the president of the SA Principal’s Association in Gauteng, believes merging schools and SGBs won’t necessarily change the results in schools and ensure greater access to facilities.

“We do agree that certain schools, especially the former model C schools, are better resourced and have efficient management systems and governance structures in place.

However merging the SGBs of one school would disenfranchise the township school parents and make them more dependent on the expertise of other school SGBs.”

In addition, learners will have to be transported from one school to another – from townships, a journey that can last hours – and teachers would drive between periods to their other school, while principals would have to attempt to be at both schools as often as possible.

The principals’ body points out that each school has its own identity and culture. “Bringing a principal from a well-resourced school with excellent teachers wouldn’t necessarily translate into improved results. There must also be a will among the teachers, learners and parents of the other school to embrace this change. Merging schools unilaterally would lead to resistance and negativity, and create even further problems.”

He recommends that those schools equipped with better resources and funding should rather empower the neighbouring school through training and mentorship programmes – and similarly for principals of schools that are under-performing and lack the expertise to manage their schools effectively.

“There are examples of schools in the townships that are achieving excellent results and have school principals who, despite their under-resourced schools and overcrowded classes, excel in schooling.”

The SA Schools Act would need to be amended “to allow for certain changes”, some of which would be more complicated.

“It is unfortunately the system that has allowed for this gap to grow and thus more children are commuting into the city to access better schools. By merging schools we could be creating a situation for learners and teachers to feel despondent when they have to return daily to their own school which does not have the same facilities.”

Charles Simkins, a senior researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation, wonders “what the Gauteng department is smoking”. “We have observed the smoke signal and we’re trying to interpret it,” he writes on its website.

“We think that there could be (unintended consequences). Schools with SGBs may appoint educators in their own name to supplement educators provided by the government. These extra educators are financed by fees levied on learners. This is only possible for Quintile 4 and 5 schools, since Quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools are forbidden to charge fees. Through their SGB, parents or care givers accept a levy on themselves to finance additional educators.

“They are free to stop doing so, in which case SGB educators would disappear. Might individual households choose to employ tutors outside of school altogether to provide supplementary teaching if schools are merged? Might learners migrate to independent schools?”

Tseliso Ledimo, the provincial secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers Union, supports the “cross-pollination” of resources and expertise but has reservations about the plan. “If you’re going to make one principal for two or three schools, that goes into legal, labour issues. What happens to the principals of the other one or two schools? Which schools will have the capacity to absorb these learners? How do you bring all those SGBs into one? If we’re talking about twinning, and schools sharing resources and teachers, that’s much easier to do.”

Tshepo Motsepe, the co-head of Equal Education in Gauteng, says learners in poorer schools face a range of disparities. “But clubbing people together assuming they will work things out is not necessarily going to work. What happens to those schools deep in townships that can’t merge with other schools?

“There are still curriculum issues and problems with teacher salaries, and infrastructural issues at many schools. We have textbooks not being delivered in Kwa-Thema and Daveyton and we are halfway through the year. The department should get the basics right.”

* Not his real name

Saturday Star