First published in the Business Day online

Amidst the political upheaval to which we have become accustomed Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his 2017 budget speech.  There will be plenty of debate around it, as there should be.  But that is not where public scrutiny should stop:  Provinces have been allocated 43,4% of state funds.  Anyone who is interested in the use of public funds must extend their attention to provincial budgets, and particularly, provincial education department budgets, which are delivered between March and April. 

If previous years are anything to go by, much of the money allocated to provinces will be spent on education.

Limpopo is good province to begin with.

Last year, Limpopo’s education department tabled a budget of R27 billion, which was more than any other provincial education department, and only a small portion of this was spent on schools themselves.

This is the money we should also be watching closely.

Limpopo school spending

Limpopo’s education department, which like its counterparts is responsible for individual school funding, divides its spending into two main categories.  The first is personnel (salary) spending, which receives the lion’s share (ideally 80% of the provincial budget, but in practice in excess of 90%).  The remaining amount is intended to procure goods and services, and to fund individual schools’ running costs, including textbooks, stationery, school equipment, basic supplies and services, and maintenance and repair costs.

Due to the emphasis on staff salaries, last year, the Limpopo education department only made R981 million available to fund the day-to-day costs of running individual schools.  This was R981 million from a total budget of R27 billion.

In terms of established processes, the pot for school running costs is then divided between rich (ex-Model C) and poor (“no-fee” or quintile 1,2 or 3) schools.  While the Limpopo education department controls how its budget is spent, there are some indirect guidelines: The Minister of Basic Education determines a minimum amount that each school should receive from its provincial education department.

Generally, poor schools are entitled to about five times more money per learner than wealthy schools:  In 2016, the wealthiest public schools were entitled to at least R204 per learner and the poorest public schools were entitled to a minimum amount of R1 117 per learner for the entire school year.

Due to the decision to allocate only R981 million for day-to-day school expenses, Limpopo did not meet this paltry minimum.  (Neither did KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.) Instead, poor schools in Limpopo subsisted on R964 per learner (including the significant costs of textbooks and stationery).  This was R153 less than the minimum entitlement of each learner.

Rural context

Limpopo is also an important point of focus because it forces us out of urban-centered modes of thinking, where cheap and easy access to many resources and services is taken for granted.

Poor schools in rural areas must regularly bear additional costs which the current funding model, provincial allocations to schools, and even current minimum prescribed amounts do not take into account properly.

Limpopo comprises three former homelands, which were ignored by the Apartheid government.  As a result, most poor Limpopo schools were built by enterprising communities, who nailed corrugated iron roofs to mud brick walls, donated old furniture, dug deep holes for toilets, and who could hardly prioritise fencing or security.

The slow pace of state-led renovation and construction at a national and provincial levels has meant that the amateur structures continue to collapse, toilets regularly fill up and become unusable, and burglaries persist.

As a result, Limpopo schools are forced to spend the funds which they receive from the province on extempore repairs to rickety classrooms, broken furniture or pit toilets, so that learners do not always have to go home when it rains, crowd classrooms or walk to bushes to relieve themselves.

As the schools are usually unfenced, they often find themselves victims of break-ins and spending money, again in a makeshift fashion, to replace stolen equipment and food, and damaged infrastructure.  At one school, in an attempt to alleviate the situation, members of the school governing body and teachers take turns to patrol the school at night.  During the day, these bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived adults return to teach, work, or try to find work.

Fundraising

Although ex-Model C schools receive less money, they are permitted to charge fees (some charges as much as R40 000 per year) so that they can make up for any shortfall in the government allocation.  By contrast, poor schools are not permitted to charge any fees.  The only recourse to government underfunding available to poor schools is fundraising.

However, fundraising has offered little respite to poor schools which are situated in isolated, economically arid regions. Schools cannot seek local patronage and often apply to larger companies for donations or enter competitions, but without social capital or luck, they very rarely succeed.  In one case, a company ran a competition for schools with laptops as the prize.  The school principal of a struggling primary school in Limpopo’s Sekhukhune District had every learner and teacher enter the competition.  The school did not win.

In many schools, principals use not only ingenuity, but also their own money when the state funds run out.

A right to basic education

The right to basic education is immediately realisable.  It is not subject to progressive improvement and access, and certainly ought not to be subject to private patronage or chance.  It is therefore constitutionally unacceptable that poor schools are consistently funded well below their actual needs, to the point where their situations deteriorate.

In 2017/18, each learner at a poor school should receive at least R1,242 from its Provincial Education Department.  It is unlikely that this amount will be sufficient given the needs and expenses of the schools, but that does not mean that it should not be met.  The fact that this minimum amount has not been met in a number of provinces (despite constitutional obligations, benchmarks set at a national level, and massive funding) is a reason to dissect provincial budgets, and at least provincial education department budgets, with similar care and attention given to the national budget.

Ramji is an attorney at SECTION27. Sephakgamela is a member of Basic Education For All (BEFA)