Why norms and standards for school infrastructure are critical

By Nathan Geffen and Rosalind Gater

Lantana Primary School in Mitchell's Plain has over 1,100 learners. It is a school in a poor area where unemployment is about 45%. Mogamad Gasant has been Principal of Lantana Primary School since 1993. He is a committed educator with 40 years of teaching experience, backed by dedicated staff and a supportive community.

However, every day Gasant and his staff are forced to attempt the impossible – to educate without basic infrastructure.

At Lantana, where the library should be, there is only a tiny space where books are stored. This means that children cannot easily access books nor enjoy them in a comfortable space. There is no quiet area to study and no support for research projects or book clubs.

Lantana does have one laboratory. However, it is neither stocked nor equipped. Because of poor plumbing it is not safe for learners to use. So it is used, not as a laboratory, but as a normal classroom.

While Lantana was one of the first schools in the country to receive a computer centre, the school does not have sufficient funds to maintain it. Learners are forced to crowd around the few surviving computers in a room littered with broken machines.

One of Gasant’s concerns is that when school results are published, Lantana is compared with well resourced primary schools in the suburbs with almost no recognition of how much harder it is for Lantana learners to pass exams.

Lantana is far from unique; on the contrary, it is the norm. One of the most important benefits of primary school is mastery of core concepts in literacy, numeracy and science. According to government data, over 75% of schools, like Lantana, do not have a functioning library, computer centre or science laboratory.

Is it possible to cultivate a love of reading without access to books? How can the next generation of South African scientists understand basic scientific concepts, if they are not able to practice theory in a laboratory? And how will school leavers get a job in the modern economy without rudimentary computer skills?

The lack of infrastructure at Lantana has negative effects beyond teaching and learning. In a healthy school community, children learn discipline and hard work. They form meaningful relationships, compete against one another, work together and are celebrated when they achieve. At Lantana, like thousands of schools in South Africa, school assembly can only take place when the weather is fine because there is no school hall. This means that when assembly does happen it is uncomfortable and brief. Gasant struggles to be heard as learners slouch listlessly.

At break-time there is nowhere to play. There are no playing fields or sports grounds on site. Worse, due to inadequate security, Gasant’s pupils face the prospect of being attacked by local gangsters who frequently break through the flimsy fence surrounding the school. If learners want to play sport after school they can, but only if they are willing to cut across gang territory to the public sports ground. Unsurprisingly, many go straight home.

Is it possible to build community without a space to meet? How will learners acquire confidence outside the classroom if they cannot pursue extra-curricular activities? Is it acceptable that learners have to attend a school where their personal security is threatened?

Evidence shows that the provision of basic infrastructure matters. A review of studies of schools across the world, recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States, considers 79 separate studies conducted over a 20 year period. The review analyses dozens of variables affecting educational outcomes. The researchers write, "Perhaps the clearest finding is that having a fully functioning school – one with better quality roofs, walls or floors, with desks, tables and chairs, and with a school library – appears conducive to student learning."

This is why Equal Education has been campaigning vociferously for a policy on minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. Infrastructure is far from a panacea for education, but it is an important step. After years of diplomatic and activists efforts, the organisation has been left with no reasonable option other than to litigate to compel Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, to establish binding norms.

Minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure would define what a school needs to function. This would certainly not automatically result in the provision of this infrastructure, but it would give school governing bodies and principals more power to hold the district, provincial and national education departments accountable. It would also give the national minister a mechanism to hold the provincial MECs accountable.

Greater accountability might also facilitate a closer relationship between schools and local education districts. At present, schools like Lantana have a Kafkaesque experience with government. Too often when looking for support, principals find themselves isolated and bewildered. Gasant has requested help so many times over the last decade that he has practically given up. Minimum norms and standards would require that a plan to provide infrastructure be put in place.

If the national minister was truly concerned with making a significant difference to our desperate education system, she would not have opposed Equal Education's court action. Instead she would have delivered a minimum norms and standards policy.

Geffen is with the Centre for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town. Gater is with Equal Education.