By Lesedi Ntuli
Earlier this year, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) instituted an innovative opt-in class action in the Grahamstown High Court against the Department of Education, which would allow any school in the Eastern Cape to join a massive court case. The aim of the law suit was to force the department to fill hundreds of vacant teacher posts and to reimburse schools that had been forced to pay teachers out of their own scarce funds.
According to Regional Director of the Legal Resource Centre, Sarah Sephton, the action which started with just 32 schools in March, grew to 90 schools both in rural and urban areas of the Eastern Cape, majority of them falling under quintiles 4 and 5.
“There are some schools below quintile 4 that have shown interest, but sadly they are just a handful. This is very unsettling because these are the very same schools that should in fact be a part of this action,” she said.
While quintile 5 schools are able to supplement their revenue by charging school fees and fund raising, the poorer schools are still suffering in the worst ways. According to Sephton, these schools have had to get community members to come in and help supervise and educate learners. This process often gets complicated because most of these volunteer teachers are not qualified thus hindering learners from receiving a good standard of education.
“It is a huge concern that we only have about less than 10 no-fee Grahamstown-based schools that have opted into this class action lawsuit,” she said.
While the schools are struggling to get the department to permanently fill the vacant teacher posts and reimburse the schools that have had to pay in teacher salaries, the poorer school remain at a disadvantage. No-fee schools such as George Dickerson have desperately tried to raise funds to pay teachers because of the department’s ongoing failure to do so. Despite being a no-fee school, principal, Melville Meiring said the school has managed to pay four teachers from their own funds.
Sephton argued that the ongoing failure of the department to fill the vacant posts at schools is threatening the right of Eastern Cape children to a basic education.
“It is worrying that this matter been going on for a while now. Even though the department has agreed to redeploy teachers who are in excess at other schools to schools where they are needed, it is highly unlikely that it will happen,” she said.
However, in early October, relief came to George Dickerson Primary School, which was reimbursed about R80 000 through the class action suit led by the LRC. This came after angry parents accompanied by members of the School Governing Body at the school locked down the gates in an effort to send a strong message to the department. According to chairperson of the school governing body, Berend Patrick Walters, the school had only 18 active teachers for 795 pupils. “The school teaches pupils from Grade R to Grade 7 and each grade comprises three classes of 40 pupils,” he said. However, Meiring said that he is relieved that the department had paid back the money to the school.
Sephton added that while it was a relief for the schools to be refunded, the department remained in contempt of another part of the court order requiring it to permanently appoint and pay teachers at some of the other schools. She added that according to the state liability act the consensus is that if the department does not pay the debt the schools are allowed to attach state assets to satisfy their debts.
Moreover, the LRC is expected to appear in the Grahamstown High Court 30 October on behalf of the schools that have filed a contempt of court order against over the failure to pay up in the time period stipulated in the Collective Agreement No 1 of 2014. This sees the department collaborating with teachers unions working towards appointing temporary teachers to vacant posts.