The Covid-19 pandemic has placed significant pressure on an already strained education system. As the plans for the current school year remain uncertain, there is a real possibility that admissions processes for 2021 are going to be impacted. In this context, it is particularly important to take stock of the ways in which persistent administrative and bureaucratic hurdles in school admission processes – even under “normal” circumstances – leave children behind.
Yolanda Mnyengeza, Pila-sande Mkuzo and Asiphe Funda
Every year, the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) has an influx of concerned parents requesting assistance with the placement of their children in schools at a grade-appropriate level. Ahead of the start of the 2020 school year, the Western Cape and Gauteng were recording an estimated 6000 and 14 000 unplaced learners, respectively. Whilst these numbers were significantly reduced within the first three months of the academic year, the process for placing these learners is cause for concern.
The Department of Basic Education has previously stated that late admission and registration and provincial migration are some of the reasons for the high number of unplaced learners each year. This is no doubt a significant part of the problem. However, through the EELC’s advice clinic admissions cases, we have also observed that one of the contributing factors to delayed placements particularly at the start of the school year seems to be a lack of coordination and communication between district offices and schools. More specifically, it is unclear at an administrative level who between the district and the school bears the responsibility of capturing and processing admission applications, and who in fact, has the final say when it comes to the actual placement of the learners. The result is that anxious parents and their children are subjected to administrative blockages in an ineffective admission system, which leads to children being unplaced for significant periods of time.
First hand experience
This is the story of one such family, left frustrated by the process. In January 2020, EELC was approached by Ms. Queen* requesting assistance with the placement of her son, Mila, for grade 8. Ms. Queen had made an online application timeously in 2019, however, all three schools she had applied to rejected her application citing oversubscription as the reason. Ms Queen was advised to visit the relevant Education District Office to register Mila on the unplaced learner’s database.
At the end of February, Ms. Queen reached out to EELC again, explaining that Mila was still out of school. Ms Queen had indeed visited the District office and was instructed by an official to approach two local schools as these schools still had the capacity to admit him. However, both schools refused the learner admission, explaining that the schools were full and they could only admit more learners on the circuit manager’s instruction, which in her case they had not received.
The law is clear on learner placements
The EELC reached out to the relevant district to get clarity on the matter wherein a district official undertook to look into the matter. After a week of not receiving feedback from the official the EELC reached out again to the same official, who in turn could not recall the learner’s case nor was he able to retrieve the details provided to him by the EELC. The official indicated that the district office did not keep a database of unplaced learners and that rather it was the schools who were responsible for having such databases. This has been the experience of several other clients who visited the district office to register unplaced children but could not be accounted for when EELC followed up on these cases.
The state’s responsibility to place learners is clearly stated in law. The South African Schools Act provides that the Head of Department (HOD) is responsible for the admission of learners to public schools. This responsibility was confirmed by the Constitutional Court in the case of MEC for Education in Gauteng Province and Other v Governing Body of Rivonia Primary School and Others. The Admission Policy for Ordinary Public Schools requires the HOD to coordinate the administration of admission of learners in public schools together with school governing bodies. The Head of Department may delegate the responsibility for the placement of learners to officials of the relevant Provincial Education Department.
In order to avoid confusion and delays in learner placement as described in Ms Queen’s case above, there is an urgent need for clearer systems, particularly in terms of delegation and decision-making authority, so that learners are placed swiftly and without undue delay.
There is also a need for more effective systems at the district level for capturing and management of matters referred to the districts – time and time again it has become clear when engaging districts that there is no uniformity in how matters are captured on electronic systems, resulting in matters falling through the cracks and learners being denied access to education. Proper data management is crucial as the district officials are required to make use of this data to formulate a “waiting list” of unplaced learners. This list is then used to identify the learners in need of placement as well as the schools that still have available places. The importance of effective data capturing systems at a district level cannot be emphasised enough, as learner placement will remain a significant challenge without these basic administrative systems.
The process of learner placement requires cooperation amongst all the key stakeholders, including districts and schools. This requires well-coordinated and effective administrative systems to ensure that this task is fulfilled in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Sending parents from one school to the next and from schools to District offices and back again cannot be allowed to continue. If we fail to address the current placement system and the challenges it poses, the year-on-year problem of unplaced learners will continue. With attention diverted to the COVID-19 education response and with the possibility of grade repeats in 2021 looming, it is crucial that attention is paid now to addressing these admission process gaps.
Yolanda Mnyengeza, Pila-sande Mkuzo and Asiphe Funda are first year candidate attorneys and Bertha Justice Fellows at the Equal Education Law Centre.
The views expressed here are the author’s personal opinion and do necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.