As schoolchildren around the country dusted off their school shoes, packed their school bags and tucked in their crisp new shirts, there were many who were left in limbo, without having a school to go to.

In Gauteng, around 31‚000 were still waiting to be placed on the first school day last week. Of these, 17‚000 were learners whose parents had applied on time for their admission to Gauteng schools and 14,000 were late applications that were received towards the end of 2017.

This year Gauteng experienced an influx of 4,500 new learners who had not applied at all. This was better than the same time last year, when the number was 9,000.

In the Western Cape, more than 11,000 learners still need placement.

The department needs to take action. There just aren’t enough schools
Chandre Stuurman

Frustrated parents have for the past three years complained about the failures of the Gauteng computerised placement system, but queuing up at education department offices over the past week hasn’t brought much luck either.

The struggle for education authorities is undoing the structural limitations that result in thousands of learners migrating to provinces with well-resourced schools like Gauteng and the Western Cape. The move of people looking for job opportunities in the metros has also resulted in more demand for school space.

Basic education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga says SA needs a comprehensive solution to the multilayered overcrowding problem.

"We need to fix the schools and the environment where [disadvantaged communities] are, so that people do not move to other provinces pursuing good schools. Jobs need to be created in rural communities, where there is availability of land, [and] schools need to be built [there]," he says.

Mhlanga admits that nationally the process of placements takes a long time, and may last to the end of February. But eventually all children will be placed, he says. With the help of weekend and afternoon programmes, pupils will be able to catch up with their schoolwork.

Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has also assured disgruntled parents that all pupils will be placed.

The caveat is that parents may not be able to send their children to their top picks.

The placement issue has become somewhat of a blame game, with Lesufi and parents pointing fingers at each other.

Lesufi says: "Unfortunately‚ many parents have applied for high-pressure areas where there is a shortage of space [in schools]. Also, some] parents have declined offers of alternative placement."

Lesufi did not address the crux of the matter – the need for there to be more schools in the first place.

The Centre for Child Law, which has been studying the problem of school placements since 2016, says the Gauteng education department has failed to do accurate modelling to predict pupil numbers.

A report from the centre in 2016 found that without statistics about the number of school places and potential pupil numbers being available, "no proper planning and provision of infrastructure could occur".

Zukiswa Vuka, an activist, says she has been struggling to get her sister placed in grade 8 in any of the high schools in
Cape Town.

Earlier this week, on the way to yet another high school to try her luck, Vuka said her family had not been offered an alternative place in another school. They had phoned the education department’s district office, but no-one had answered the call, she said. Her next port of call would be the Equal Education Law Centre. "[My sister’s name has] been put on a waiting list. She’ll probably be placed in March, and she’ll be behind with her schoolwork," she said.

Chandre Stuurman, an attorney at the centre in Cape Town, says the organisation has received 20 admissions cases so far. Most were brought by parents who had applied to multiple schools but were told that there was no space for their children. "The district office is well aware [of the problem], but the department needs to take action. There just aren’t enough schools," she says.

Stuurman says the centre engages with schools to try to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. If this fails, issues are escalated to the district offices, which can investigate which areas still have space.

"We try to pick up the phone and address the issue as soon as possible instead of firing off formal letters.

"It doesn’t always work. Last year, a community approached us, but by July, the issue was still not resolved," she says.

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