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Every child has a right to primary education. To ensure this right is protected, the constitution further requires that the state, through reasonable measures, ensures this right is fulfilled.

One of the critical components of this right is the safe transport of pupils to and from schools. However, many pupils face significant barriers in accessing their education rights, particularly regarding safe and reliable transportation to and from school. The lack of adequate transport poses serious safety hazards to the wellbeing of learners, especially in rural areas where schools may be far away from residential areas.

Planning and budgeting for pupil transport is co-ordinated between the national department of transport and the national department of basic education. The National Learner Transport Policy of 2015 is not specific regarding the location of the transport function, with five of the nine provinces locating the function within the provincial department of education and the remaining four within the department of transport.

The procurement of such transport is not uniform countrywide. In some provinces the provincial department of transport only ensures compliance with all relevant laws and regulations. The provincial department of basic education takes full charge of the entire implementation chain from planning and budgeting to procurement of learner transport.In other provinces both departments co-ordinate closely with provincial basic education, identifying learner transport needs and feeding this information to the provincial transport department, which is tasked with planning, budgeting and procuring pupil transport. 

The growing need for transport stems from several factors, including growth in the number of children migrating between provinces; the rationalisation of schools, particularly in rural areas; mushrooming informal settlements; and the increasing occurrence of new human settlement developments, mainly in urban areas. All of these factors force learners to travel long distances to attend school, often under unsafe conditions. 

Due to this dynamic, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng have the highest demand for pupil transport. In 2014 the total number of children needing transport across all nine provinces stood at 498,263. In 2022 the picture changed dramatically when demand increased exponentially to 875,985 pupils requiring transport. This gap highlights the urgent need for improved planning and budgeting. 

The findings from research by the Financial and Fiscal Commission indicate that poor planning is one of the root causes of the pupil transport crisis. For example, in 2015, 516,886 children countrywide required and qualified for learner transport; however, the planned target for that year stood at 371,422, meaning 145,464 qualifying pupils had to walk long distances to and from schools.

These gaps stem from data inconsistencies between the departments of basic education and transport, leading to inconsistent budget and expenditure data on transport. In some provinces the budget for pupil transport is included with other items under the “goods and services” classification, making it difficult to determine the specific amount allocated for learner transport. 

While demand for pupil transport increased significantly between 2014 and 2022, there is inconsistency concerning the number of learners qualifying for transport reported by the national department of transport and the national department of basic education. Consequently, the total number of learners qualifying for learner transport is, in most cases, far above the planned number. This inadvertently leads to transport overloads, in contravention of safety regulations, compromising the lives of learners, and pupils walking to school and being exposed to risks and hazards en route. 

Research reveals several pupil transport challenges that can affect the realisation of the fundamental right to education. These challenges include unmanaged increasing demand for learner transport as the current demand exceeds available capacity. Worsening these challenges is the endemic data discrepancy between the provincial education and transport departments as the actual demand is not fully understood, which could affect planning and funding.

The commission further found that provinces cannot provide transport to all qualifying learners due to inadequate funding, which poses a safety risk as provinces overload buses and contravene rules and regulations. Therefore, there is a compelling need to improve systems to ensure accurate data reporting regarding the number of pupils transported, and that yearly changes are captured accurately.

A new funding model for pupil transport must be developed in consultation with provincial treasuries, and provincial departments of transport and education. This model must include flexibility for provinces to address emergency contracts to provide learner transport. Lastly, safety remains a paramount concern in learner transport. Provinces must ensure that learner transport service providers adhere to strict safety standards, and vehicles must be properly maintained and equipped to prevent fatalities. 

Dr Mbava chairs the Financial & Fiscal Commission. 

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