Learner Transport Draft Policy: Department of Basic Education briefing

Basic Education

19 May 2015
Chairperson: Ms N Gina (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) led the Committee through a presentation on the draft policy on Learner Transport. Both the Department of Transport and the DBE had developed the draft policy through a consultative process. It had gone through public consultations on 13 November 2014. The DBE emphasised that the policy had been long in the making.

Different interventions were discussed as well. The Department of Transport had engaged with different law enforcement agencies to address issues of overcrowding and unworthy vehicles; joint intervention and monitoring teams at national, provincial and local level being constituted; the development of road safety programmes in conjunction with the Road Traffic Management Corporation; the development and enforcement of a driver and learner code of conduct; and training and education for learner transport drivers, school governing bodies, educators and parents.

A Member was highly critical of the draft policy, saying that it was not a quality document and did not focus on learners. The DBE, and not the Department of Transport, had to take the lead in drafting an acceptable policy. Other Members raised many implementation issues, such as where exactly would a learner go to get picked up to go to school, and how would the learner get there? Inaccessible roads in rural areas were a major issue for learners.  How would the policy be monitored?  Another concern raised by members of the Committee was that the policy did not include criteria to specify who the beneficiaries would be.

The DBE explained that the policy was only a guideline and framework, and an operational document would follow that would clearly set out the implementation issues that had been raised.

The Chairperson emphasised that the Committee members were so emotional about this draft policy because they took the learners’ well-being very seriously. The DBE must have a quality final policy for learner transport with specific criteria, and an operational document to go along with it. Both the DBE and the Department of Transport would be asked to come back to present the final policy to the Committee. 

Meeting report

The Chairperson told the Committee it was supposed to be a joint meeting, but the Portfolio Committee on Transport was not able to attend.

Briefing by Department of Basic Education (DBE)

Mr Ramasedi Mafoko, Director: Physical Planning and Rural Schooling, DBE, said the objective of the policy was to make sure learners had access to education by having a safe and sustainable transport system. There had to be integration with all stakeholders, and collaboration with law authorities as well. The policy would apply to learners from Grade R to 12.

Commentators had said that a critical area the DBE had not included previously was the type of services, so these had also been included in the draft, including both subsidised and non-subsidised types of services. Even private arrangements were included in the policy, such as parents getting together to take learners to school. Different policy areas used to develop a code of conduct for drivers and leaners were highlighted.

Mr Mafoko said the Department of Transport had engaged with different law enforcement agencies to address issues of overcrowding and unworthy vehicles. Other engagements included joint intervention and monitoring teams at national, provincial and local level had been constituted; road safety programmes developed, in conjunction with the Road Traffic Management Corporation; the development and enforcement of a driver and learner code of conduct; and training and education for learner transport drivers, school governing bodies, educators and parents

Discussion

Ms D van der Walt (DA) thought that there had been a policy on this before, in 2008 or 2009, but the DBE was saying this was a new policy. Last time the Committee had addressed this policy, it had thought the process would start, but it had not. It was a given that the law of the road would be adhered to. What the DBE had not looked at were the learners. Where was the learner supposed to go to get picked up by scholar transport? In this country, learners had to walk far just to get to the main road in order to be picked up to go to school.

She expressed strong criticism of the DBE, saying that people sat in the Department and in offices and did not know what was going on. Municipalities could not do what the DBE thought they could. They could not even fix the potholes in the provinces. Who would monitor this? Who would get the budget for this? She also asked for the list of all stakeholders. How would vouchers operate? What would happen with children who stayed after school for activities? What were the alternatives, like schools owning their own buses? Many could not go into the rural areas, and this was not acceptable. The DBE was not caring about the learners.

Mr A Mpontshane (IFP) recognized that there were challenges because of the demographics of the country. What would guide school governing bodies in identifying beneficiaries? He was concerned about the fiscal concerns of provinces’ treasurers, like unfunded mandates. This had led to inequalities between the provinces. How would the DBE deal with the provinces who were already struggling to provide infrastructure?

Ms A Lovemore (DA) expressed her disappointment with the DBE for presenting an “atrocious policy” that was completely unacceptable. What stage was this policy at? The policy had come to the Committee before, and it had rejected it. The Committee wanted the draft policy to be acceptable. When the Minister of Transport had made a speech last week, she had said that the policy was on its way to Cabinet. Ms Lovemore was horrified with that, and said she was disappointed that the Department was not even at the meeting.

Her main concern was that students living in small towns with one primary school had to go to a hostel in a bigger town for high school. Many of those students did not go to high school because their parents could not afford to transport them.

Regarding funding, there was no reference as to who got subsidized. There were no guidelines, and if the DBE had a uniform policy for the whole country, there needed to be criteria. What was regarded as a suitable school? The closest school to a learner might be a school in bad condition. Ms Lovemore also said that nothing would get done if the two departments were equally responsible. Which department would take the lead?  Lastly, she stated that there were a lot of conflicting parts in the policy -- that was the extent of “nonsense that was this document.”

The Chairperson interjected, and said that some of Ms Lovemore’s comments were not helpful. Even though the Chairperson agreed with some of the points, the manner in which it had been said was not called for.

Ms Lovemore said that she thought the policy deserved that manner, and that she felt strongly about what she had said. The document should be “thrown in the bin,” and the DBE should not associate itself with it.

The Chairperson emphasised that the document was a draft, and the point of the meeting was for the DBE to get useful input from the Committee so that the final product would be something the departments and the Committee could be proud of. They needed to all work together.

Ms H Boshoff (DA) asked about boarding schools. In Mpumalanga, quite a few primary schools were closed and learners had to go to boarding schools, but there was no transport for them.  For children having to use taxis for transport, what about the taxi wars happening, and the inaccessible routes that buses could not go through?  Also, who would ensure the children were not misbehaving on the buses, because the drivers could not do so. There needed to be a senior educator on the bus to look after the children. What would the DBE do to address the learners with physical and mental disabilities? How would their safety be ensured? What were the criteria for identifying the types of services for learners? Regarding subsidised transport, who determined this?

The Chairperson commented that criteria were needed to identify the learners. Who were the beneficiaries? Also, what was the difference between subsidised and non-subsidised?

Mr Paddy Padayachee, Acting Director General: DBE responded to some of the questions from the Committee members.

He said the DBE did have funding, but it covered around 60% of the beneficiaries so there were some learners who were not covered.  With provincial treasuries, if the beneficiaries were identified, funding could be received.

Regarding the question of who would take the lead on this policy, this was one of the reasons why the policy had not been finalised for so many years. Some provinces gave the function to the Department of Transport, and other provinces gave it to the DBE. The relationship was unclear, but they were trying to be more integrated and were working together.

Regarding the Minister of Transport’s speech, the Department of Transport would need to explain that.

With funding, the DBE was looking to the National Treasury to provide conditional grants for the provinces. The premiers would decide how portfolio committees were designated in the provinces, based on the Constitution. The DBE could not designate a lead department, since that might violate the Constitution.

The DBE knew there needed to be an implementation plan. However, without a policy that was not finalised, implementation could not be considered yet. The policy would lead to a framework.

Mr Mafoko responded as well, saying a lot of the issues raised by Members were operational in nature, and the draft policy could not include them. Another document would be drawn up to include the operational and implementation issues, including many of the issues raised by Committee Members. Some of the operational issues had to be addressed by the provinces as well, such as the issue of hostels.

He said that there had never been an official draft policy. There had been a document in 2008 released by the DBE, which had informed the start of the process of this policy. Irrespective of where the functions lay, the final policy would guide the implementation.

On the issue of beneficiaries, what would guide principals and school governing bodies was providing transport for grades R to 12, and making sure learners went to the nearest appropriate school.  How to identify beneficiaries would be clearly spelt out in the policy to ensure it was a uniform process. The issue of learners with disabilities had been addressed extensively. Vehicles transporting these learners would have to be adapted, and that was laid out in the policy.

The Chairperson said a focus of the policy was how to cater for learners who lived far from the schools, or the pickup area. Was the DBE catering for that?

Mr Mafoko said the issue of learner transport was finding a solution to the challenge of access. For example, the inaccessibility of roads mattered too, and they cut across different sectors as well. Other solutions had to be looked at, and the DBE had to find a way to get the learners to school, particularly in rural areas. One current challenge in some of the provinces was that the advertised routes were not used. Even if money was allocated for the routes, providers did not want to go there. Boarding schools might be the solution. The DBE’s vision was that in the long term, the provision of learner transport should decrease rather than increase, and the DBE wanted to transport learners only when it absolutely had to.

Mr D Mnguni (ANC) asked if scholar transport in the Eastern Cape had showed any signs of reducing. There were two schools in Mpumalanga that had stopped scholar transport, and strikes had resulted. Was there anything that had been done to address this?

Mr T Khoza (ANC) appealed to the Committee members, saying that they were there to assist in finding solutions. The Committee could not expect the Department to do everything. Regarding maths, sciences and technology schools, what about the students who were not studying those subjects, but had no choice but to attend that school?

Ms C Majeke (UDM) asked if the DBE had looked into supporting poor learners with vouchers, because a lot of money was spent per child. To lessen the burden on parents, what if the vouchers could help?

Ms J Basson (ANC) noted that there seemed to be a miscommunication on the policy and operational documents, because what the Committee Members were raising seemed to be implementation issues. The policy was there to provide a standard and guidance, especially in situations where the provinces differed. Also, because transport was for learners grade R to 12, what happened when schools ended at different times? Safety was also an issue, such as the incident when a child had no place to sit and was near the door and fell off the bus because of overcrowding. Regarding law enforcement, what happened if service providers did not comply?

The Chairperson said that now they had heard the Committee’s contribution, the DBE it must come back with the implications of the policy. Taking care of learners was the DBE’s responsibility. The Committee knew the policy would not take care of all the learners’ challenges, but a policy that was well crafted, well developed, and well implemented would greatly help.

Mr Padayachee answered the question on the maths, sciences and technology schools. It was the choice of the parents to have a child went to those school . If they did not want to, the DBE knew it must provide a mode of transport to another school.

The DBE was unsure of how the Treasury would look at the voucher system. It had been discussed in the past for other issues like textbooks, but the DBE had to ensure that the learner was the actual beneficiary.

Regarding the hostel plan, it may work well for high school, but for younger students who had to leave their parents, it might be more difficult. On the issue of safety, the DBE was definitely looking into addressing the safety of learners and issues of overcrowding. For those who want to make use of private transport, they needed to know their responsibilities. The DBE knew it could not ignore these issues. They may not be a feature in this policy, but they would be in the Department’s programmes and would be looked at holistically.

The DBE might need to consider having its own form of transportation, even though this was not the solution. The ideal would be to have schools close to where the children lived. There were mega schools with hostels, but there were a lot of social issues that came with this.

Mr Mafoko replied to the question on the Eastern Cape statistics. Looking at the number of learners transported in the third and fourth quarters, there had not been a reduction in numbers. There had been reductions in the Free State, Northern Cape, and Limpopo. He would get more information and send that to Mr Mnguni. In regard to the different grades getting out of schools at different times, it was related to the management of the schools, and looking at cost implications was important too. The DBE would address the issue of imposing punitive measures in the contracts, listing what the outcomes would be if there was no compliance. The DBE wanted to have guidelines in terms of tariffs. This would factor in the issue of the conditions of roads, which would be taken into account when entering into contracts. The DBE had taken note of all that had been raised at the meeting and would take it all into account when working on the operational document.

Ms Van der Walt said that there had been a second draft on scholar transport in 2007. Had the DBE looked at provincial policies? She also wanted to clarify that it was not that the Committee did not want a scholar transport policy, but it wanted the best policy for the learners, so the DBE could not afford to make mistakes. She expressed her disappointment that scholar transport was not among the list of the DBE’s ten non-negotiables. What were the statistics on the number of accidents involving scholar transport?

She said that at a previous meeting, she had asked the DBE how it would address the issue of sanitary towels, which made girls drop out of school. The DBE had said that based on research, this was not an issue, but the Minister had just said that it was. Ms Van der Walt said the Committee and the DBE must be very careful with what they said in meetings.

On budgets, Ms Van Der Walt said that if a bus was not full and there was a learner on the route, why not pick them up and charge them if they could afford it? The problem was that conditional grants were not spent on what the DBE wanted them to be spent on. How was the DBE supposed to monitor the implementation of this plan? The draft policy was not even close to a final document. The Committee could not accept second best when it came to learners.

Ms Lovemore said that the DBE must be the lead agent for this process. The first draft that had been put out was a good indication that the Department of Transport’s policy was not focused on children at all. It was full of technical terms, so the DBE should take the lead, as the policy needed to be focused on learners.

There was a fine line between a policy and operational issue, but there needed to be criteria and criteria were not an operational issue. The policy could not be drawn up if no one knew who qualified. Transport to hostels was not operational -- it was a policy issue. Regarding public transport, the policy said that transport would be available for learners in areas where public transport was not available. Did that mean that some learners would not be considered, just because taxis were present? The policy also said that norms and standards would be listed, but there were none, such as what vehicles could be used, or on whose authorisation.

Ms N Mokoto (ANC) asked about the liability of services. What were the financial projections for this policy? Would taxis be able to benefit from subsides?

Mr Padayachee replied to the question on the DBE’s non-negotiables. Infrastructure was one of them, which included scholar transport.

The DBE would try to look at the accident statistics of scholar transport, but these may be difficult to get, so it might look at subsidised transport.

Regarding criteria, kilometres had been included in a past draft, but that had been taken out. The policy was going to affect learners outside a five kilometre radius, but some learners were two kilometres away and still needed transport because of their particular situation. The DBE did not want to be restrictive.

The Chairperson again emphasised the question of what the criteria would be for beneficiaries.

Mr Mafoko said that both the DBE and the Department of Transport agreed the criteria would be that learners who lived five kilometres away from schools would be provided transport. However, the DBE wanted to craft the policy in such a way that learners might be able to be transported even if they lived within this radius. The DBE was trying to make sure there were provisions for these learners to be included, including learners with disabilities.

The Chairperson said that the final policy must take into account the need for specific criteria.

Mr Mafoko said that it would have been a lot more helpful if the Department of Transport had been present at the meeting. Two workshops had already been held with stakeholders to discuss the operational document. By the time the draft policy was approved, the operational document would follow closely. He said it would be helpful to show the Committee the operational document before the policy was finalised, so that the documents could be seen side by side, as many of the issues raised by the Committee were in that document. There was an inter-provincial committee that sat in on meetings, so this had been factored into the document. In the DBE’s definition of public transport, taxis were not really considered a provider. If the student could pay for the taxi, that meant they can afford it. However, if that was their sole form of transport, the DBE had not done its job.

The Chairperson reminded the DBE that now it knew what the Committee’s primary concerns were. With the criteria, these could not be confined by kilometres. The Committee needed to know who qualified, who became a beneficiary, and how to become one. All of this would need to be in the operational document. When would the Committee see the final policy? A joint committee meeting was still needed to make sure the operational document was in line with the policy document.

Ms Lovemore asked if there was obligation on either of the departments to come back to the Committee. If there was no legal obligation, was there a commitment?

The Chairperson responded that there was no legal obligation, but the Committee would definitely call both of the Departments back. The emotions in this meeting showed how much the Committee cared about the learners.

Adoption of Minutes

The minutes of 21 and 24 April, and 12 May 2015, were adopted.  

The meeting was adjourned. 

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