In a virtual meeting the Committee was briefed on the state of reopening of schools, the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) and the changes to draft directions for Learners with Special Education Needs (LSEN). The Deputy Minister informed Members that operating under COVID-19 conditions was a new experience in the country therefore adjustments were being made according to particular situations as they occurred.
Members were given a global update on the reopening of schools and were referred to Kenya as an example because they had a school-based assessment policy which they were advised the Department could learn from in this situation. The link between attendance and the dropout rate was highlighted as concerns were raised that the dropout rate could increase significantly if the lockdown period was extended. Members heard that the Department had been taking a lot of financial strain with disruptions at the reopening of schools, but fortunately incidents of disruption had decreased drastically.
The proposed amendments to the directions pertaining to Learners with Special Education Needs (LSEN) was presented to the Committee one of which was to Direction 9 to address the insufficiency regarding the opening of hostels and the provision of reasonable accommodation for learners in school hostels. Members heard that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) Delivery Models consisted of two procurement systems, a centralised model utilised by Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Kwazulu-Natal and the Western Cape, and a decentralised model utilised by the Eastern Cape, the Free State, the Northern Cape and North West provinces. The Centralised model is an open tender bid system and the Decentralised model provided for a direct transfer of funds to schools.
Members asked whether the Department was going to wait on the results of the consultation regarding the Kenya assessments before considering different assessment options; when the Department was going to indicate when the programme to accommodate young adults would be developed; why some of the provinces opted for the centralised and others for the decentralised options regarding the NSNP; and whether a report was available to determine the success of the delivery of food parcels. Members informed the Department that the teachers at certain schools were happy about the current teacher-learner ratio and would like the Department to consider keeping it this way into the future. The Committee informed the Department that the school attendance numbers and dropout rates in the report did not make sense. They advised the Department to revisit the numbers and to provide an update on the statistics including on the school-leaving cohort. Members questioned the method used for collecting data as the dropout numbers for Limpopo was not comparable with the other provinces. They asked for clarity on how learners at home were being monitored.
The Committee was concerned about the poor quality of food that was provided by suppliers, especially in some districts in Limpopo. Of equal concern was the impact of the Department’s funds in relation to substitute teachers and as some learners would be left without teachers if the Department was unable to substitute all non-returning teachers. In response to the problematic statistics Members were asked to give the Department time to work on it. The Committee was informed that while the reduced teacher-learner ratio was working very well at certain schools, the Department did not have the resources to maintain the reduced teacher-learner ratio. The Committee congratulated the Department on the new developments that was brought to their attention.
The Chairperson welcomed the Members, the officials and the Deputy Minister (DM) of Basic Education, Dr Reginah Mhaule. The Minister, Ms Angie Motshekga, was unable to attend the meeting due to Cabinet commitments. The Chairperson presented the agenda for adoption. The Chairperson invited the DM to give her opening remarks.
Opening remarks by the Deputy Minister
The DM thanked the Committee for affording the Department the opportunity to deliver the presentations. She welcomed all Members and the officials from the Department. She said that in order to save time, the presentations would not be done on a word-for-word basis. Members would be allowed to engage with the information as the presentations were received in advance and most of the information was known to the Committee.
The last cohort of learners returned to school on 31 August 2020. The Department would be dealing with the teething problems of changes and risks that were identified. Operating under COVID-19 conditions was a new experience in the country therefore adjustments were being made according to particular situations as it happened. From time-to-time, direction was changed to suit the situation. No major incidents were reported since the schools reopened. The DM welcomed the fact that the virus infections have subsided.
Briefing on the National School Nutrition Programme
Dr Granville Whittle, DDG: Education Enrichment Services, DBE, delivered the NSNP presentation. He said that the mandate of the NSNP was to enhance learning capacity and improve access to education. Over 9.7 million learners were on the current database. The programme mainly targeted Quintile’s 1 to 3 schools due to the needs of poorer learners in that category. As at the end of August 2020, 4.4 million learners were provided with a nutritious meal every day at school. All 9.7 million learners should benefit from the programme after the schools reopened for all learners during the first week of September 2020.
The responsibility of the National Department was to manage, monitor and support the implementation of the programme in all provinces and districts. During the hard lockdown period, the Department worked closely with the Department of Social Development (DSD) to support the learners at home.
The responsibility of Provincial Departments was to monitor and support area Project Officers and schools in districts and regions. Provinces were asked to amend the annual business plans which the Department was busy evaluating. Updated attendance numbers were provided on a weekly basis. Safety measures at schools include the screening of learners, social distancing and provision of a space for handwashing.
The NSNP Delivery Models consisted of two procurement systems, which were a Centralised and a Decentralised model. The Centralised model is an open tender bid system and was utilised by five provinces Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Kwazulu-Natal and the Western Cape. The Eastern Cape, Free State, Northern Cape and North West provinces utilised the Decentralised model that provided for direct transfer of funds to schools.
The feeding modalities that all schools agreed on consisted of three options. These were firstly, serving meals at school, secondly, learners collecting meals from school and thirdly, delivery of food parcels.
The challenges faced by the Department especially after losing the court case presented difficulties. Many parents did not allow learners to return to school due to fear of the virus. Scholar transport was a particularly difficult challenge for the Department.
The Department implemented mitigating actions to make the NSNP accessible to all learners. Communities were constantly informed about the meals that learners could collect at schools.
Briefing on Directions for learners with special needs
Adv S Misser, Chief Director: Legal and Legislative Services, DBE, presented the proposed amendments to the directions pertaining to Learners with Special Education Needs (LSEN) published on 23 June 2020.
The Centre for Child Law successfully challenged the Directions of 23 June 2020 through a court application. As a result of the Settlement Order the Department amended Direction 9 to address the insufficiency regarding the opening of hostels and the provision of reasonable accommodation for learners in school hostels.
The rule that restricted a gathering to 50 people necessitated the amendment of Direction 15 although it did not form part of the court order. The argument was made that attendance at school was not a public gathering and that a school with a large facility may accommodate more than 50 persons.
Briefing on the state of reopening of schools
Mr Mathanzima Mweli, Director-General, DBE, wished Members a happy Spring Day. He noted that Spring Day was observed for ladies and not for men.
On international experience, the DG reflected on the experience of other countries regarding the reopening of schools. Kenya had a school-based assessment policy which the Department could learn from for future developments. In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, the schools never closed but they did not experience high infection rates. In France schools originally reopened on a voluntary basis but it later became obligatory.
On attendance, the Department attempted to link attendance to the dropout rate. Concerns were raised that the dropout rate could increase significantly if the lockdown period was extended.
Regarding the projected learner dropout, provinces were requested to encourage schools to follow-up on the whereabouts of learners and to indicate the measures taken to involve the parents in attempts to return learners to school.
On the support to learners exempted from school, the amended directions made provision for five categories of learners exempted for full or partial attendance. Learners were provided with material to support their education at home. The DG made two points in this regard. Firstly, the burden was not solely on the parents and secondly the school had a joint responsibility of the duty of care.
Regarding water and sanitation, six provinces needed emergency provision. The situation was assessed daily and complaints were regularly followed up. The Department also served the Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces with sanitation services while the other provinces took responsibility for their schools.
National Curriculum Statement – The focus was on grade 12 learners and learners with special needs. Continued support was provided for learners at home including grade R to grade 11.
Assessment and Examination – The postponement of examinations resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of learners registered for the examinations. To date, 1.1million learners will be sitting for the examination. Planning for preparation of marking centres and sourcing of markers had started. The Minister would be releasing the results on 22 February 2021 followed by the provinces the following day. The Department met with other Assessment Bodies about the release of the results. The concern was raised that some learners might be unfairly advantaged if the results were released before the 22 February 2021.
Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) – The latest version of the SOPs was communicated with all schools. All provinces confirmed receipt of the new SOPS.
Psychosocial Support – Top NGOs, the DSD and faith-based organisations were assisting the Department with trauma counselling. Universities also helped with online counselling.
Monitoring of Social Distancing – Schools had been creative in monitoring social distancing. In Kwazulu-Natal, desk shields were introduced. Provinces needed to report on the measures implemented to monitor the wearing of masks.
Litigation – The Department had eight out of nine favourable court rulings but lost the NSNP case. The DG said that an appeal would not be made as it would be immoral to do so.
Scholar transport – Bus operators were provided with training and safety measures to comply with COVID-19 protocols.
Teachers with co-morbidities – Of the approximately 27 000 applications received, 22 000 were approved. The demand for substitute teachers was beyond what the Department could afford. The option of teacher assistants was more affordable.
SGB posts – Teachers in SGB posts were paid from school fees. Many schools were battling to keep SGB teachers in their posts. Quintiles four and five schools were considering reducing salaries.
COVID-19 information – The number of cases was below the international benchmark. Some schools, including poor schools benefitted from opening earlier. In other cases, MECs granted permission for deviation for schools that were not ready to open later. The Department was not involved in the decision by schools about the implementation of the differentiated timetable.
Hostel facilities – The distance of 1.5m restriction at hostels was being reviewed. A distance of 1m is proposed for schools and hostels.
Disruption – The Department had been taking a lot of financial strain with disruptions at the reopening of schools. Fortunately, incidents of disruption decreased drastically.
QLTC programmes – worked well except in the Western Cape. Government and faith-based organisations assisted the Department to mobilise for the provision of quality education. Major disruptions at schools decreased since the return from the break.
COVID-19 procurement – National Treasury provided specifications for procurement of COVID-19 essentials including the measures to maintain the stock of masks. Learners were provided with a pair of masks every three months.
Auditor-Generals report – The interim audit report would be completed by the end of September 2020 with the final report to be completed by the end of October 2020. The Auditor-General was of the view that the Department was not using data efficiently and did not comply with the National Treasury’s instructions. Similar control weaknesses were identified in all provinces.
Ms M Sukers (ACDP) thanked the Department for the presentation. She reported that parents in the Western Cape felt pressurised into sending their children to school. The threats to parents fuelled the disruption in schools. The issue must be attended to and communication was needed to make anxious parents aware that they could not be forced into action. She asked whether the Department was going to wait on the results of the consultation regarding the Kenya assessments before considering different assessment options. The focus should not be just on the future but also on the current situation. The situations of the countries referred to in terms of benchmark assessments were not similar to that of South Africa. Comparisons should be made with countries in a similar position to our country. The school attendance numbers and dropout rates in the report did not make sense. She advised the Department to revisit the numbers and to provide an update on the statistics including on the school-leaving cohort. She was concerned that children receiving the Social Development grant payments were not kept in the system. There was also uncertainty about the National Senior Certificate programme for adults. She asked the Department to indicate when the programme to accommodate young adults would be developed.
Mr E Siwela (ANC) welcomed the presentation. The teachers at the schools that he visited were happy about the current teacher-learner ratio and would like the Department to consider keeping it this way into the future.
He queried why some of the provinces opted for the Centralised and others for the Decentralised options regarding the NSNP. Given the high levels of corruption, he wanted to know which model worked better and which model the Department recommended. He questioned the method used for collecting data as the drop out numbers for Limpopo was not comparable to the other provinces. He asked for clarity on how learners at home were being monitored. The costs of employing assistant teachers were much lower compared to substitute teachers as per the DGs report. He asked which requirements assistant teachers needed to fulfil.
Ms C King (DA) referred to some of the feeding programmes that were taken over by the Department of Social Development (DSD) and wanted to know whether a report was available to determine the success of the delivery of food parcels. She requested statistics to be made available on the number of schools affected by theft. She enquired about the status of discussions with National Treasury to cover the shortfall. She was happy about the attention given to the LSEN and requested data on the number of learners per province that were supported by the programme. She said that it would be helpful if the Department presented the information about the reopening of schools contained in court papers, in order for the Committee to ascertain whether the plans were reasonable. She requested a report on the number of complaints received on the PPE tender processes. During her engagement at different schools, the negative effect of the prolonged use of chemicals was raised as a concern. She asked whether the Department conducted research on the harmful effects of chemicals used in sanitisers.
Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) informed the Committee that the administrative block of a school in her province was burnt down. She asked whether anything was done to help the school function normally. It was her view that the Decentralised procurement system presented opportunities for fraud and recommended that the Centralised system be applied to all schools. She asked whether child-headed households, with no possibility for parental guidance, were supported. It was the duty of the Head of Infrastructure to update the Department with the water and sanitation statistics on a daily basis. She questioned the effectiveness of this practise.
Ms N Tarabella-Marchesi (DA) was pleased that the majority of learners were back at school but was concerned about the learners that dropped out of school. She wanted to know if the Department was encouraging learners to return to school to complete the matric year. A positive aspect of social distancing lies in the opportunity for teachers to connect with learners due to the smaller class sizes. She asked whether the smaller class sizes could become the norm and if the budget could be increased to cater for more teachers and additional classrooms. Reports that she read indicated that online learning was not effective. The Department should investigate the aspects that could be improved to make online learning work and to make the hybrid model the future way of learning.
Ms N Mashabela (EFF) advised the Department to target poor learners as there was a big concern about the poor performance and dropout rates in poorer communities. Her biggest concern was the poor quality of food that was provided by suppliers, especially in some districts in Limpopo. Children should be provided with food that will nourish them.
The Chairperson was also concerned about the dropout projection rates. Dropout cases in quintiles one to three schools were mostly from poor households. As a public representative and a parent, she was worried about children not returning to school. She told the Committee about the vegetable garden planting activities when she was still at school and asked whether this was currently still the case. She wanted to know whether the principals or school governing bodies (SGBs) were accountable for the NSNP. She was concerned about the readiness of the Department to pull through this academic year in case of another peak. She asked for clarity about the impact of the Department’s funds in relation to substitute teachers and she expressed concern that some learners would be left without teachers if the Department was unable to substitute all non-returning teachers.
Response by the Deputy Minister
The DM said that she appreciated the questions as it indicated to her that Members were doing research on the work done by the Department. Concerns raised by Members centred mostly on the nutrition programme and learners dropping out of school. She reminded Members that the Department was operating under an abnormal situation. The reasons for learners not returning to school varied. Not all learners that did not return to school were from quintiles one to three. Learners from quintiles four and five were more affected. In some cases, parents with co-morbidity concerns were afraid to send their children back to school. It became a problem when the parents did not communicate with the school. The Department was working closely with schools to keep track of learners that stayed at home. Plans were being made to accommodate such learners but they are required to re-apply for enrolment next year.
The DM said that it was a challenge when asked to provide statistics about the NSNP during the meeting. The sentiment from the parents was that they did not want their children to be treated like dogs by sending them to school just to fetch food. Beneficiaries of the NSNP were poor learners from quintiles one to three schools. For this reason, the Department worked with the DSD so that the children can benefit from the food parcels delivered at home.
Statistics about PPE tenders and service providers were not in the report as it was a new aspect that the Department would be working on for future reporting purposes. The DM asked Members to request statistics in writing and to refrain from asking for statistics in the meeting.
The DM said that vandalism at schools had been reduced but not eradicated. The burning of the school administration block was not expected.
The appointment of substitute teachers negatively affected the budget of the Department. The implications of COVID-19 were not taken into account when the budget was allocated. The Department was not in the financial position to appoint all the substitute teachers that were needed.
The choice between the centralised and decentralised procurement model was left to the provinces to decide as each model had its own strategies. The Department could face litigation if credible service providers, who had been providing in the past, were declined should they now face challenges related to the COVID-19 situation.
Response by the Director-General
The DG said that parents had the option to keep their children at home but not to disrupt schools. He acknowledged the help of Ms Sukers in making parents aware of their options.
The issue of alternative assessments was addressed in the previous Portfolio Committee meeting. The team was still working on practical methods versus traditional tests and teachers were being trained on the available options. The Department consulted with other grade 12 assessment bodies to not release results before the DBE results were announced. Learners who were unable to write the examination in November /December 2020 would have the opportunity to write in May/June 2021. Only five universities would be in a position to complete the academic year in November/December 2020. The previously disadvantaged universities would be doing so either in February/March or May/June 2021. The dates of the DBE are in line with the dates of the universities.
The Department was not able to do research with comparable countries on the reopening of schools. Benchmarking with developing and BRICS countries would have been preferable but Asian and African countries have not returned to school. Information shared with the Committee was of countries that returned to school earlier such as China, Finland and Mozambique.
The DG acknowledged that the statistics in the presentation might not make perfect sense at this stage. He said that it was better than the first-time results and asked that the Department be given time to work on it. More teachers were required for smaller classes. The Department did not have the resources to maintain the reduced teacher-learner ratio.
The decentralised and centralised procurement models both have advantages and disadvantages. In his experience, the Decentralised model cut out the handlers and was therefore more beneficial. The Department worked with the DSD as it would not be able to provide food parcels as regularly as the DSD. The allocation per learner was R350 which would not provide for learners over an extended period. The National Treasury was requested to top-up the current grant allocation. If approved, the funds should carry the Department until the end of November 2020.
The interim report of the Auditor-General did not contain corruption related issues. The DG recommended that basic hygiene be practised as an alternative to sanitisers if the chemicals were found to be harmful. Sanitisers containing 70% alcohol worked effectively but soap and water should rather be used if people were negatively affected by it.
The DG was of the view that child-headed households were the exception and not the norm. It takes a village to raise a child. Therefore, teachers, officials and neighbours stepped in and assumed the role of parents. Teachers also visited and checked up on learners at home. The Department also worked with the DSD to provide support in this regard as children of school-going age were supposed to be at school. The disadvantage of online learning was the lack of supervision and emotional support needed to improve academic performance. The Department was considering investing in blended learning and agreed that all learners should have access to the best available teachers.
The DG replied that the school gardening activities were abandoned as it was not working effectively. He said that the Department would be readjusting plans to reconstruct the academic year should a second wave of COVID-19 occur. The number of substitute teachers was far more than what was planned for. Provinces were struggling with the financial implications of the pandemic hence teacher assistants get paid less. Substitute teachers would be provided for all grade 12 learners.
Response by the Chief Director: Planning, Information and Assessments
The budget was already under pressure before COVID-19. On return of grades seven and twelve the Department was able to use teachers from other grades who did not have learners to attend to. The implementation of the differentiated timetable meant that the provision of teacher replacements was not needed. Teacher assistants were fulfilling an intermediary role. The concept was not meant to make the profession seem casual.
Response by the Chief Director: Social Mobilisation and Support Services
The Department had been in consultation with the National Treasury about the funding of the NSNP since the start of the lockdown period. Officials from the National Treasury argued that funds should be available as schools were closed. Funds totalling 96% of R7.7 billion was ring-fenced for feeding schemes. The remaining 4% was kept as a buffer for the rest of the year to support provinces that might run into trouble. The Department was closely monitoring the PPE procurement process.
Ms Sukers proposed that detailed questions about statistics that were not provided be sent to the Department. The DBE should be requested to provide written feedback within a week.
The Chairperson asked the DM if it was possible to give responses within a week.
The DM replied that it was doable but that it depended on whether the provinces provided the information on time.
The DG agreed that the information could be provided within a week.
The Chairperson announced that this was the last meeting before recess. The Committee would return during the first week of October 2020 and await guidance from the House Chairperson on the programme for the next session. Suggestions would be forwarded to Members on the way forward.
The Chairperson congratulated the DG about the new developments that was brought to her attention.
The meeting with the Department was concluded and the officials were dismissed.
Adoption of minutes and Committee Report
Minutes dated 28 August 2020
The minutes were adopted, without changes, as a true reflection of the meeting held on 28 August 2020.
Report of the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on the Fourth Quarterly Report on the Performance of the Department of Basic Education in Meeting its Pre-Determined Objectives for 2019/20
The Report was adopted, without changes, as a true reflection.
Ms Sukers requested that the Secretary of the Committee be tasked with sending the detailed questions about the statistics to the Department.
The Chairperson asked Members to liaise with the Secretary of the Committee about the information to be sent to the Department.
The meeting was adjourned.
- DBE State of Reopening of Schools Presentation
- Basic Education Committee Assured about Late Enrolments of Learners at Universities in 2021
- DBE: National School Nutrition Programme
- Directions Published by Department of Basic Education
- Signed Response 1 September Meeting
- Questions which were not Attended to In the Meeting of 01 September 2020
- DBP physical distancing bench marking August 2020
- Annexure A: Explore Feasibility of Different Models of Teaching
- Annexure B: Hand sanitizers may increase norovirus risk
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