No one can deny that our school infrastructure is in dire straits. Too many school buildings, especially those catering for our poorer communities, are unfit for learning or teaching, their structures and facilities vandalised or simply allowed to collapse into disrepair.

The Gauteng government has a target to build 132 new schools and refurbish 1000 schools by 2014. The department is however unlikely to reach the target set, especially at the current pace. Less than 30 schools have been built and less than 100 schools renovated since the target was set. The MEC announced plans to build 36 new schools and refurbish 120 schools in seriously poor condition for 2012/13 financial year.

These projects are characterised by poor planning and implementation, contractors being paid late and completing the projects late, and renovations and maintenance being neglected for long periods of time. It costs more than R40 million to build one school in Gauteng and less than R30 million in Western Cape.

Last year, an audit of education infrastructure projects put this into perspective. While Gauteng was not in all areas the worst performer, the report was a wake-up call. For example, it revealed that contracts worth some R454.7m (over two thirds of the total for South Africa) were given to contractors that were either not registered or were not registered to perform the appropriate level of work.

Delays in project completion were common and serious, with projects taking an average of 16 months longer to complete than the contracted period (when it involved prefabricated structures, the delay was nearly two years.) And poor liaison with local authorities led to a number of schools being built on unsuitable dolomitic land.

The demand for new schools is, of course, due to huge pressure to enrol learners as a result of migration. About 88000 learners enrolled in Gauteng from other provinces this year alone. The majority of these learners come from Limpopo, Kwazulu Natal and Eastern Cape.

On the other hand, there are schools with learner capacities of between 800 and 1200, which have fewer than 400 enrolled. Others with the same capacity have more than 1500 learners applying. What is going on? The answer is school performance.

This simply means that poor performing schools put huge pressure to well performing schools, because parents demand admission for their children to give them a better chance at education. The department, meanwhile, ignores the pleas of School Governing Bodies, and demands that these learners be placed even when the ratio exceeds set standard.

So building excellent schools is not just about the buildings and facilities, no matter how important they are. Good leadership and management build excellent schools. Weak management destroys good schools, as surely as vandals destroy the school environment. All parents have vested interests in their children’s success and new management can bring hope to such schools.

The MEC for education must be bold. As she acknowledges, quality education needs quality managers. Absolute priority must go to employing and rewarding qualified and excellent principals.

We need partnerships: the department believes it can meet all the expectations, but this is impossible. There are non-governmental organisations prepared to utilise schools facilities to benefit communities, but they struggle to get anyone interested in their plans.

The long term sustainable solution to deal with backlogs to rescue declining school infrastructure, is to adopt a proactive approach. Let’s partner to make our schools work. Let’s learn from our mistakes and emphasise excellence in all our plans. When we do that we will find that our school buildings are both tall and proud, and so are our teachers and learners within them.

Khume Ramulifho, MPL

DA Gauteng South Regional Chairperson and DA Gauteng Education Spokesperson

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