Progress on Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative: briefing by Deputy Minister & Department of Basic Education

Standing Committee on Appropriations

19 August 2013
Chairperson: Mr E Sogoni (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

A delegation from the Department of Basic Education (DBE), led by the Deputy Minister and the Acting Director-General, briefed the Committee on progress with the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI), which aimed to replace mud schools and other inappropriate education structures, and restore the dignity of learners and teachers.

The ASIDI project was now delivering one school per week, and was endeavouring to increase this to two schools a week next year.  Each school was fully furnished, and had ICT connectivity, a resource centre and a laboratory.   The Department should have done more to communicate its achievements, such as distributing pictures to show the changes, and had now increased its efforts to improve communications.   Mud schools had been eradicated in all provinces except the Eastern Cape, where more mud schools were now being found than had been indicated in the original data.  Many were in very remote areas.  However, priority had been given to the Eastern Cape.  A total of 201 schools had been identified for construction, of which 51 were already under construction and between 25% and 30% complete.  As it was impossible to build all the schools simultaneously, it had been decided to provide interim structures in the form of mobile classrooms.  These were temporary measures until the schools were completed.

The Deputy Minister spent considerable time explaining the events surrounding the “norms and standards” issue, which had led to a threat of court action.  The situation now was that

although no norms and standards had been proclaimed, a new school was being produced each week, and no complaint had yet been received that any school did not comply with minimum standards.  After further consultation with the stakeholders, the norms and standards would be proclaimed by the end of November.  He warned the Committee that no matter what was published, there were “other interest groups” at work who would bring forward reasons for challenging the norms and standards.   The DBE wanted to ensure the provision of a reasonable level of services, with the minimum requirements being a safe environment, peripheral fencing, laboratories, learner resource centres and ICT connectivity.

Challenges faced by the DBE included being let down by supposedly reputable large contractors in meeting delivery deadlines, the additional costs involved in service providers employing consultants to compensate for their own capacity limitations, wide variances between tender estimates and quotations from contractors, and combining all the resources needed to service education’s multi-dimensional needs.

Members criticised the slow pace of delivery, and suggested that small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) should play a bigger role in the ASIDI project.  It was emphasised that mobile classrooms should remain on site for only a specified period, and not become a permanent feature.   Learner-teacher ratios were discussed, as well as plans to facilitate the deployment of teachers to areas where their skills were required.

The Committee was told that the DBE was making use of the Departments of Correctional Services, Labour, the Further Education and Training (FET) Colleges to manufacture and refurbish school furniture.  The Department of Environmental Affairs was also involved, through supplying wood derived from the felling of non-indigenous trees, and over 70 000 items of furniture had been produced from this source.  The DBE’s objective was to make sure that every child had a chair at school.

The Chairperson urged the Department to give attention to speeding up the delivery process, and to improve public awareness of its achievements with the ASIDI project.
 

Meeting report

Chairperson’s Opening Remarks
The Chairperson welcomed the delegation from the Department of Basic Education (DBE), which was led by the Deputy Minister, Mr Mohamed Enver Surty, and the Acting Director-General, Mr Paddy Padayachee.  Members were keen to find out how much progress had been made with the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI) since the last meeting in February, when agreement had been reached on the way forward.   The Department should have come out more clearly on its position regarding norms and standards, which had become a significant issue.  The Committee was focusing much of its attention on education, particularly on this project to provide children with quality schools which restored their dignity. At the same time, recognition should be given to those communities who had built the mud schools originally so that their children could receive an education.  The challenge facing the programme was the snail’s pace of progress – it took a year to appoint service professionals, and another year to appoint contractors.  It was obvious that the budget would be under-spent because of this. 

Deputy Minister’s Overview
Mr Surty thanked the Chairperson for his welcome, and paid tribute to the Committee for its “extraordinary support” and the benefits which the DBE derived from its oversight role.  The Chairperson’s observations were consistent with those of the Department.  He agreed that the contributions of communities needed to be affirmed, so that when a school was handed over, marquees were erected and a vibrant interaction took place.  The excitement of both the parents and the community was unbelievable – for them, this was an “island of hope in a sea of misery.”

What had been learnt, through engagement at the highest political and public service level with reputable contractors, was that one could not always assume that they would always deliver on time. On the other hand, small entrepreneurs were able to deliver timeously, school by school.  The big companies often did not take into account the effects of the different geographic location of the schools, such as the extra costs of delivery, accessibility, and the availability of water and electricity.

Another reality was that even organisations supporting the ASIDI project, such as the Independent Development Trust and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, had challenges in terms of human capacity – just like the DBE itself. This had led to serious limitations in the contracts being concluded at that time.  Many mistakes had been made, but it had been an important learning curve.

The ASIDI project was now delivering one school per week, and was endeavouring to increase this to two schools a week next year. Each school was fully furnished, and had ICT connectivity, a resource centre and a laboratory.  The Department should have done more to communicate its achievements, such as distributing pictures to show the changes, and had now increased its efforts to improve communications.

Mr Surty said mud schools had been eradicated in all provinces except the Eastern Cape, where more mud schools were now being found than had been indicated in the original data.  Many were in very remote areas. However, priority had been given to the Eastern Cape. A total of 201 schools had been identified for construction, of which 51 were already under construction and between 25% and 30% complete.  As it was impossible to build all the schools simultaneously, it had been decided to provide interim structures in the form of mobile classrooms. These were temporary measures until the schools were completed.

Turning to the “norms and standards” issue, he said these had originally been developed in 2008 by the then Minister, Naledi Pandor. They had not been prescribed, but merely published for public comment.  In 2009, a new administration had come in and the proposals had then been submitted to the Council of Education Ministers (CEM). Concerns were expressed that the norms were too optimal and inflexible, taking into account the differences between the various provinces. To allow flexibility, the MECs suggested the norms should be adopted as guidelines, and this was agreed to. However, Equal Education was not happy with this, and said the norms and standards should be proclaimed and binding. The DBE acceded to this demand, but said it would develop norms and standards that would have a degree of flexibility. These were proclaimed, gazetted and published, and this led to the Department receiving further submissions from the Department of Education, Equal Education and Nedlac. The DBE said that because of all the submissions which had to be taken into account, it would not be possible to prescribe in time, and asked for an extension, but this had led to a threat of legal action. The DBE had then put forward three alternatives to the MECs – publication of the minimum norms and standards within the specified deadline, agree to consideration of the submissions and extend the deadline, or take the matter to court.  In less than half an hour, they had agreed abide by the original proposal.  There were still no norms and standards that had been proclaimed, but the reality was that a new school was being produced each week, and no complaint had yet been received that any school did not comply with minimum standards. After further consultation with the stakeholders, the norms and standards would be proclaimed by the end of November. Mr Surty warned the Committee that no matter what was published, there were “other interest groups” at work who would bring forward reasons for challenging the norms and standards.  The DBE wanted to ensure the provision of a reasonable level of services, with the minimum requirements being a safe environment, peripheral fencing, laboratories, learner resource centres and ICT connectivity.

Briefing by DBE
Mr Padayachee, introduced the Department’s presentation by showing the Committee a short video depicting how mud schools and other inappropriate structures dating back to the apartheid era, were being replaced with modern facilities, including laboratories, laptop computers, water-borne toilets and ablution facilities.

The ASIDI project master list had set targets of replacing 510 inappropriate schools, and supplying electricity to 916 schools, sanitation to 741 and water to 1 120.  The DBSA was implementing 49 inappropriate schools in the Eastern Cape, of which 27 had been handed over, seven had reached works completion, and the remaining 15 were at various stages of completion. Expenditure to date was R609m. DBSA had been appointed to construct a further 50 schools in the Eastern Cape, five in Mpumalanga, ten in the Free State, three in Limpopo, two in North West and one in the Northern Cape. The Department of Roads and Public Works had been appointed to implement 16 schools, and expenditure to date was R43.78m.  The IDT would be implementing 12 schools, and a total of R77.74m had been spent by the end of July.  It had also been allocated a further 30 schools in the Eastern Cape to implement, using alternative construction technology, and ten schools in the Free State.  The Coega Development Corporation had been appointed to implement 25 schools, and total expenditure by the end of June was R120.5m. The Free State Department of Education had been appointed to build ten schools in the province.

Although the DBE was making good progress in providing school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape through the ASIDI programme, a number of inappropriate structures still needed to be dealt with, so there was a plan to provide mobile classrooms – and mobile ablution facilities – to address school readiness in 2014 in all the provinces, with the exception of Gauteng and the Western Cape. When the inappropriate structures had been replaced, the mobiles would be moved for use at other locations. The DBE was also addressing school furniture needs in the identified schools.

Mr Padayachee gave the Committee a brief breakdown of the water, sanitation and electrification projects (see presentation), and concluded the presentation by stating that estimated ASIDI expenditure for the 2012/13 financial year was R741m, compared to an allocation of R2.065bn, and a rollover of R1.324bn had been requested.

Discussion
Mr M Swart (DA) referred to the 49 schools being implemented in the Eastern Cape by the DBSA. The Committee had been told originally that these would be delivered by December 2012, but 15 had still not been completed. Funds were being provided, but not the output.  The presentation showed 90% of the approved contract amount had been spent, but 30% of the project still needed to be completed. Would additional funds be required?  If so, how much?  The performance of the implementing agents was disappointing – they were not doing what they had been appointed to do.

Ms A Mfulo (ANC) said that in the light of big companies having problems in completing school buildings in time, consideration should be given to small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) in order to expedite the process. She was sceptical that all the backlogs would have been eliminated by 2015.

Mr J Gelderblom (ANC) asked whether there would be enough teachers to fill the posts at the new schools.  He also wanted to know what the construction costs, per square meter, were for the schools, and whether any maintenance plans were being put in place, such as the provision of solar panels.

Ms N Mkhulusi (ANC) said the schools being built through the ASIDI project were very different to the ones she had experienced in 18 years as a teacher, and commended the Department.  The situation was very encouraging. She expressed concern, however, that the DBE would have a problem in providing mobile classrooms at those classrooms where there was no land available.  With the upgraded schools, how would teacher-student ratio issues be handled, with excess teachers in some areas being moved to areas where there would be shortages?

Mr L Ramatlakane (COPE) said the Committee had been engaged in the norms and standards issue since 2010, and he had not realised that it was problems with politicians which had “put a spanner in the works.”   It had taken him aback.  There had been a failure by those entrusted with responsibility to do what they were supposed to do.  At some stage, the goalposts had been moved and instead of norms and standards, one now had guidelines.  He was also concerned about the rate of delivery.  He had thought that the DBSA had been brought in to accelerate delivery, but it seemed the opposite was true.  Other matters of concern were the source of additional funding for the mobile classrooms, the reason for the Free State DBE’s significant over-estimation of tender prices, the challenge of learner-teacher ratios in the Eastern Cape, and the need for inter-departmental coordination to deal with water and sanitation issues.

Ms R Mashigo (ANC) asked whether the DBE had engaged with the Department of Correctional Services to allow inmates the opportunity to make furniture for the schools as part of their rehabilitation programmes. She was also perturbed that the involvement of the DBSA was not helping to speed the completion of schools in the Eastern Cape.

Mr G Snell (ANC) said it was really heartening to see such wonderful facilities being developed.  However, it was necessary to look at how the funds for the project had been appropriated. One had to ask what went wrong at the initial scoping phase.  It appeared to him that the DBE had been misinformed by its consultants. One would have expected these professionals to provide accurate time frames based on the scope of work to be undertaken.  In the circumstances, the Department should rather adjust the mid-term framework (MTF) and roll the programme out, knowing when it was going to end.

The Chairperson said it was important to ensure that the provision of mobile structures was a temporary arrangement,and a clear time frame for their removal needed to be set. He expressed frustration over the delays in completing schools, and suggested there was still time to establish a project management unit in the DBE to monitor progress closely. At the moment, the Department had a R8.2bn budget to spend over three years, but no-one responsible for driving it.

DBE’s Response
The Deputy Minister said the Department agreed with the Committee’s views on the situation, and had to become realistic in assessing what it could achieve. This meant being aware of the challenges it faced, and the necessary action to be taken. The core business of educators was the implementation of curricula, so how could they suddenly expect to have the skills to deal with bills of quantity, engineering design, penalties and contractual terms?  The contractors would always have an advantage, unless the Department had a dedicated team to oversee the process. As a result, the DBE had established a unit comprising engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers within the department to oversee the ASIDI project, and it had indeed made a difference.

The education system was very complex and multi-dimensional, involving not only the building of schools, but also the supply of water and electricity, the deployment of teachers, learner numbers and curriculum content.  One could not look at a single element without considering the others, as well as taking the cooperative governance aspect – national, provincial and local – into account.  For this reason, it was important to ensure that the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Council (PICC) had “a handle” on the different agencies responsible for service delivery.

One of the risks of installing mobile classrooms was that they became a permanent feature unless deadlines were specified. The process needed to be closely monitored and agreement reached that they would be used only for a defined period. The Department was looking at the cost implications of supplying mobile classrooms, as it might cost less to build a school than to invest in too many mobile units. However, an advantage was that they could be moved to where they were needed after serving their purpose elsewhere.

The Deputy Minister said there had been an expectation that the norms and standards would be accepted by all the MECs. However, there were nine new MECs, with nine new heads of departments, so it should not have been a surprise when the new administration expressed different views. The guidelines had in fact been used by the provinces in the provision of infrastructure. The DBE did not have a hostile relationship with the MECs, Equal Education, or any other organisation, and valued the information they provided.

The DBE was concerned that despite the capacity which existed within the Department and implementers such as the IDT and DBSA, consultants were also being employed. This amounted to paying three times for the same service.  Because of the cost implications, implementers had to be able to deliver without outsourcing, and the DBE had already engaged with Minister Patel (Economic Development) and National Treasury on this issue.

The Department was in the process of reviewing the post provisioning norms – not just in the Eastern Cape, where the greatest challenges existed, but throughout the country – to provide a uniform approach to matching the skills with the competencies required, and a more efficient teacher deployment system. Despite opposition, the DBE had been able to reduce teacher numbers in the Eastern Cape owing to the migration of the population to other provinces offering better economic opportunities. A model was being developed, in consultation with the unions, to address this issue.

Solar panels were a feature in many schools, and would be installed wherever appropriate.  However, the DBE’s priority at this stage was the provision of water, rather than hot water.

The Deputy Minister said that the variance in tender prices against department estimates were often the result of contractors under-quoting without visiting the site in question to understand the impact of factors such as distance, topography and infrastructure. The Department’s quantity surveryors tended to be more cautious with their estimates. It was normal to allow a variance of between 10-15%, but variances greater than this needed to be investigated.

Lessons had been learnt in the Eastern Cape, where reputable contractors had been expected to fulfil contracts to build 12 schools, only to find they had completed eight easy-to-build schools, and the remaining four were not delivered. This meant one would have had to cancel the entire contract.  Some contractors had tried to use the situation to blackmail the Department into providing additional funds, but this had been rejected. This had resulted in the DBE ensuring that contracts were awarded only on a one-school-at-a-time basis.



Mr Padayachee undertook to provide the Committee with a report on the construction costs per square meter of the ASIDI project.

The Deputy Minister said the Department was making use of the Departments of Correctional Services, Labour, the Further Education and Training (FET) Colleges to manufacture and repair school furniture. The Department of Environmental Affairs was also involved, through supplying wood derived from the felling of non-indigenous trees, and over 70 000 items of furniture had been produced from this source. The DBE’s objective was to make sure that every child had a chair at school.

The Chairperson thanked the Deputy Minister and the DBE for their frankness in dealing with the Committee’s concerns, and urged that attention be given to speeding up the delivery process and improving public awareness of its achievements with the ASIDI project.

The meeting was adjourned.
 

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