Boots On The Ground

DOCCIE | The sombre stories of pupils at rural government schools

Among the issues are drug use at primary schools and a school with only two teachers for nine subjects and seven grades

16 November 2023 - 13:36
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We follow a pupil to a rural school to hear sombre realities from which government seems to be removed.
We follow a pupil to a rural school to hear sombre realities from which government seems to be removed.
Image: Nolo Moima

In this episode of Boots On The Ground, we follow a pupil to a rural school. Among the issues we hear about are drug use at primary schools and a school with only two teachers for nine subjects. We speak to civil organisations about the issues.

Listen to the podcast documentary:

About 41% of pupils who started school 12 years ago did not make it to grade 12 last year. We look closer to determine the real impact of the most disadvantaged and overlooked schools and what happens to the pupils. Merle Mansfield of the Zero Dropout Campaign says pupils lose their grip and disengage in grade 10 and 11, where the numbers spike, after they have struggled for years.

The Schools Act compels the education department to follow up on dropouts by investigating the pupil's absence from school and provide a remedy, but not much progress has been made. The department works with other government departments, including social development and police, to tackle societal challenges that overlap at schools.

Civil organisations are concerned about education, including Equal Education, which aims to empower young activists and ensure equality in education. The Zero Dropout Campaign is an advocacy movement working towards halving the dropout rate by 2030, while the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) aims to ensure constitutional rights and has focused on education over the past 10 years. All speak to us and we ask the education department to respond.

Among the schools visited, one high school showed us a sachet of a white powder drug confiscated from a pupil on the day of our visit. We visited primary schools and were shocked when educators complained about drug use by pupils aged between six and 13.

Civil organisations accuse government of being disconnected to what is happening on the ground. Itumeleng Mothlabane, head of Equal Education in the Eastern Cape, tells us education is built on a broken foundation and pupils with special needs are being left out in the system and only recognised in later grades.

Mothlabane says pupils are not being taught to read at foundation phase. Among the myriad issues, she says obstructions that prevent implementation of solutions are in administration and there is also no political will to eradicate pit latrines at schools.

The department uses implementing agents to build infrastructure at schools, but the agents get contractors and sometimes the contractors get sub-contractors to build schools. Mothlabane says the chain is long and the department is not using technology to fast-track implementation.

All South Africans have a right to basic education and the Bill of Rights obliges the government to progressively make education available and accessible to everyone through reasonable measures. 

The end of this month will mark 10 years since basic education minister Angie Motshekga signed an agreement compelling the department to ensure every school is a proper school after civil organisations took the department to court. Ten years later, the department has not complied. In this podcast documentary, you will witness the life of a rural child attending a government school and hear from school principals and civil organisations about progress with infrastructure.

Some regions, such as the Eastern Cape, regularly receive learning material late. The LRC launched litigation to force the department to provide stationery to about 3,000 schools in the province. The provincial department argued it had no funds for stationery and textbooks, yet it had to return R205m in unused funds to National Treasury.

Again this year the same province forfeited R100m in unused funds. The department responds to this poor outcome in the podcast. The Daily Dispatch reported the department continues to underspend, despite forking out R553m since 2019 on consultants to assist in spending and planning infrastructure projects. 

The LRC's Cameron McConnachie sympathises with the department, saying infrastructure projects are difficult to manage but argues that after three decades it should have worked out how to handle projects. Like Mothlabane, McConnachie says there is improvement in infrastructure but it's too little to note.

Pupils are expected to be able to read for meaning in grade 4 but all sources interviewed complained about rife illiteracy.

In the podcast you will hear about the use of drugs by primary school children and a school that has only two teachers giving nine subject lessons to seven grades in a multi-graded school divided into two classrooms. This is one of the nearly 5,000 multi-graded schools in the country. 

In this financial year the basic education department was allocated R22bn by National Treasury. An additional R48.7bn allocated to the education infrastructure grant is meant to fix infrastructure backlogs at schools that don’t conform to the basic norms and standards.

Rhodes University professor responsible for education research, Zingiswa Jojo, says extramural activities at schools are important to keep children away from drugs and other substances. She noted a decline in such activities at schools over the years. 

She says ordinarily in rural schools classes from grades 1 to 9 do not finish the syllabus.

Boots On The Ground is a TimesLIVE production. The podcast is nominated in the 2023 Radio Awards as the best podcast, together with its sister podcast Eusebius on TimesLIVE.


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