The Mpumalanga department of education was unable to confirm exactly how many children of school-going age were still awaiting placement in a local primary school, but spokesperson Jasper Zwane said there were no more than 60.
However, Lowvelder has determined that at one of the public schools in the city, the waiting list for Grade 1s numbered about 180 learners. Another has a waiting list of 43.
These children have limited options. In September, Lowvelder reported how Natalie Meyer could not find a Grade 1 placement for her daughter, Dakotah, in four of the city’s government schools. Meyer enrolled Dakota at Drena Pre and Primary School this week, a brand-new institution.
“I left several messages with the department of education, but no one has ever gotten back to me. I chose Drena because I cannot afford the school fees of other private schools, and the homeschooling option is out,” Meyer said.
According to administrator Antoinette Chanty, Drena still has space for pupils in all grades – from R to seven. School fees are R1 100 a month, the same as the average fees for Grade 1 in government schools. Well-known private schools charge between about R4 045 and R5 077.
Meyer believes the bigger public schools can and should accommodate more learners. “I am willing to fight furiously to see that my voice and those of other worried parents are heard,” she said.
The department’s policy is a maximum class size of 40 pupils per primary school class. However, Walter Hlaise, provincial secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), said it wanted a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:30.
To attain a number close to it, some schools are funding the appointment of additional teachers themselves. “The governing body pays for teachers to keep classes a reasonable size,” Wynand Viljoen, headmaster of Nelspruit Primary School, explained.
He said he knew there were many children living in the vicinity who the school could not accommodate. When Lowvelder arrived on Wednesday, a queue of parents and their children were waiting in the reception area, most of them hoping for a spot in a Grade 1 class. Some were dressed in the school’s green uniform even though they had not been accepted.
“We wish we could help everybody, but unfortunately there is only so much space. We will see what we can do to help those who have come here today, using every resource at our disposal,” Viljoen said.
“Unfortunately, the last new government school in Mbombela was built 33 years ago. The population of the city must have trebled in the last 10 years. We need the government to build another school.”
Zwane pointed out that the department built a new primary school, John Mdluli, in Mataffin in 2012 and that things were going “very well”.
Another mother found a temporary, but far from ideal, interim solution. Ira Pillay, a preschool teacher, posted on Facebook on Wednesday: “I’m heartbroken for my child. Today, Zoey had to start [the] first day of her schooling career. She is still on waiting lists at three schools in [Mbombela]. Sadly, this is the reality us parents are faced with, hoping the government will start doing the right thing, building new schools in [Mbombela].”
Pillay said that she hoped to hear from a fourth school to which she made a late application in early December.
“In the meantime Zoey is attending my Grade R class to keep her in a learning environment. She is very positive about the situation, but the first day of school is an important event and that has been taken away,” Pillay said.
She added that the department reached out to her on Facebook in reaction to her post. “A representative contacted me saying should Zoey still not be placed, they would help to find her a space. That is positive; the government is doing something to help.”
Zwane said the department was prioritising critical admissions – cases where families or children have moved areas.
“In Mbombela, we have a problem but we hope that principals will do what they can to help the situation and keep parents posted. We do not want them to close the gates or send parents from pillar to post,” he said.
Zwane added that department officials were working round the clock to place all Grade 1 learners by January 20. “It is obviously important that pupils are placed as soon as possible to make sure they can catch up on the work they have missed. We also encourage parents to look at enrolling their children in other schools which have space,” he concluded.
– Caxton News Service