No easy solutions for farm schools

A debate in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on the challenges facing farm learners this week quickly escalated into a political wrestling match between provinces but also confirmed there are no easy solutions to these challenges.

ANC MP, Landulile Dlamini said addressing the challenges in farm schools, will take time “because of the unfortunate apartheid tendencies” that still remain. The EFF agreed, calling learners on farm schools among “the most vulnerable in our society”. EFF MP Nkagisang Mokgosi said these learners and their families do not only face “slave-like conditions” on a daily basis but are living in constant fear of being evicted. “You cannot expect proper learning under such conditions.” DA MPL in the Western Cape Legislature, Basil Kivedo told MPs it is common knowledge that children in farming communities are among the most vulnerable and said addressing learner problems in farming communities require a multi-disciplinary approach. Despite the politicking, most of the MPs expressed concern over the persistent challenges. Some mentioned poor facilities where the whole school is sometimes just one big room, buildings are dilapidated and in some of the very poor areas one teacher is responsible for teaching learners from Grade R to grade 2.  

The ‘lucky” ones

The conditions most of the MPs referred to match research findings of a study the Women on Farms Project undertook a few years ago on farms in the Boland and Grabouw areas. Some of these findings showed children living on farms experienced a range of educational problems mostly due to their location and socio-economic conditions. The main challenges were transportation with many of these learners having to spend over an hour walking to school in all weather conditions, the study found. Back then the organisation demanded government amend the 5-km transport policy for rural schools. Not a lot has seemingly changed for some schools since then. The principle of Keisie VGK Primary in Montague Serone Benjamin told ParlyBeat the school already lost a grade 2-learner who died in an accident whilst crossing one of the major roads on her way to school. Only a white cross as remembrance remains at the side of the road. According to Benjamin the local traffic department has since supported the school with more visible neon-coloured caps and bands the learners wear on their way to school. The school has 154 learners, she said and 4 teachers who operate at multi-grade level as each of them teach two grades in one. “The workload is too much and the learners suffer because teachers cannot get to everything.” Benjamin too, questions the 5-km transport policy. “Having to walk 4-km is already very far for a small child to walk. It is the distance from the main road that is used to determine kilometres yet most of these children live on farms where the houses are very far from the road. Despite this and the odd water problem, the school is still among those better off, according to Benjamin. They get a lot of support from the community.

 

A national problem

Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga concurred challenges farm schools face is a national problem. According to a departmental report of 2015, there were 8192 rural schools in the education system. The bulk of these schools are located in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and the Western Cape.

 

She referred to the Eastern Cape where schools also had to be closed due to low enrolment rates and because they are "expensive and unviable to sustain". Motshekga admitted that there may be factors that will require the department to reconsider some of its criteria. “We agree there is a need to improve the quality of education in rural areas. We will have to define what we classify as a rural school, review recruitment and retention problems in these schools and look at resourcing,” she said. According to her, the department will have to look at these schools which are pedagogically unsustainable and work with provinces. She said due to increased urbanisation these schools are getting smaller, unviable and very expensive. Motshekga referred to rent payments provinces have to make as many of the schools are on private land and scholar transport costs that add to expenses. “It’s a major economic burden but we are doing all we can.” She referred to some provinces that already embarked on a process of rationalisation. “It is a very difficult process as we’ve seen in the Western and Eastern Cape as the communities oppose the closures and create problems for the sector. The models carry costs and social problems but at the same time we also cannot always assume small schools must close as there is sometimes no alternative.” In the Eastern Cape, four farm schools already challenged Motshekga and her department in court over the decision to close these schools and there are similar cases in the Western Cape. These communities often claim they were not properly consulted on the matter.  Motshekga said as rural areas become less populated there are always learners who remain and need schooling. She conceded during the debate sometimes “a school with 20 learners on a remote farm is sometimes better than transporting those learners daily elsewhere or placing them in boarding facilities”.

 

Doomed if we do, doomed if we don’t

The minister also told MPs provinces have different models of dealing with these smaller schools and some of them are “socially problematic”. “In Mpumalanga for example, the response was to build bigger boarding schools. It is a viable option for high school kids, but you can’t socialise small kids like that. A small child is better off with the poorest mother than in an institution because it has long-term social problems, she explained. “There are good interventions but you cannot institutionalise children too early as they must grow up with families. So, we have this major problem - doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t.”

 

Rural schools in SA (2015)

Source: DBE Progress Report on Rural Education

Province

Number of Rural Schools

Eastern Cape

1498

Free State

375

Gauteng

120

KwaZulu-Natal

2895

Limpopo

2167

Mpumalanga

202

North West

288

Northern Cape

140

Western Cape

507

TOTAL

8192




Summary of Schools Gazetted for Closure in each PED

Eastern Cape

310

Free State

0

Gauteng

11

KwaZulu-Natal

58

Limpopo

0

Mpumalanga

36

Northern Cape

48

Northwest

0

Western Cape

11

Total

474

 

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