It is around this time of year that children starting Grade 1 start to get excited. There’s school uniform shopping, baggy pants and skirts get hemmed and little feet take their new school shoes for a practice run around the house as parents and their children get ready for the first year of school.
But Yolandi Cook’s son, Bryce, is not doing any of these things. Last week, he looked up at his mom and asked: “Mommy, which school am I going to next year?”
“I don’t know, my boy,” she replied.
Cook is one of many mothers whose children were either rejected by the schools they applied to, remain on waiting lists, or missed the cut-off date for applications and have nowhere to send their children next year.
While Gauteng’s online admissions process was intended to end inefficiency in the system and root out corruption, parents also complain that the electronic method further limits their ability to talk to officials and gives them even less say in the process.
However, the department lauds this system as one of its crowning achievements and, in its 2017/2018 annual report, the department notes that the system won the 2017 Centre for Public Innovation Award for innovative enhancements in government.
Gauteng’s online applications for Grade 1 and 8 closed at the end of May this year. The department’s spokesperson did not respond to questions on Friday but said in April that there had been more than enough time for parents to apply, and said then that applications would be reopened if there was enough time.
He said the department processed more than 90 000 applications last year and placed 90% of pupils who applied on time.
But the system has not been perfect.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that the department places children at schools – a policy many parents have complained about for years.
Adding to glitches in the system is the fact that on the whole, urbanisation has left the education department scurrying to find places for thousands of pupils who move to bigger cities every year for better education.
The national Department of Education could not be reached for comment on Friday but a spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, told the Financial Mail in January that it was crucial for existing schools in rural areas to be fixed, for new schools to be built and for jobs to be created in those areas.
‘Those phones just ring’
Not having your child placed at the school of your choice is more than just a question of better classroom sizes or extramural activities.
It’s a problem for parents with more than one child whose children attend different schools, and a problem for parents who might live close to the school their children are placed, but work far away.
Cook has three children and was hoping that she would be able to get her youngest son into Grade 1 next year at the same school as her daughter. Her two eldest children already attend different schools.
She missed the online applications cut-off, thinking it wouldn’t matter very much since there was already an older sibling in the school to which she applied.
Her son was also in one of the feeder schools to the school she wanted him to attend. While the rule, generally, is that this could count in a parent’s favour, there is no guarantee, as Cook discovered.
She says she went from office to office, talking to school principals and government officials trying to find a school for her son. All the schools in her area are full.
“You can phone until you are blue in the face, those phones just ring,” she says.
Bukelwa Qwadikazi wrote to Parent24 in August, complaining that she applied early for her child to enroll for Grade 5 in 2019 but has been unsuccessful.
Her son went to the same school from Grade 1 to 3, and in Grade 4, the family moved to Limpopo. They returned to the Western Cape the following year, thinking her son would easily be accepted back into the school he previously attended.
Three visits to the principal later, and after being sent “from pillar to post” by other schools and officials, Qwadikazi’s son is now on a waiting list but she has been told there is no guarantee he will be accepted.
Her applications to other schools in the area were rejected.
The single mother says she cannot afford private schooling and needs to start buying school uniform. All she can do now is wait.
Officials not familiar with rules
Another mother from Kempton Park said she missed the cut-off date for applications by one day, and by October 16 her child had not been placed.
In another case, a parent was told his application was rejected because it was late, when in fact the application was sent in on time, according to the father.
After being sent from pillar to post, from one official’s office to the next, the father lodged a formal appeal to the department at the end of September, with documents proving that the application was submitted on time.
He was advised to accept the rejection and his child has now been placed in a school 12km away from where he lives.
It also appears that the system is being overseen by officials who do not know the rules.
According to the article dated March 16, 2017, if you are told the school is full then the school needs to provide a letter stating that.
“I have tried this route, the education department did not know which letter I was referring to and asked me to send them the article in order for them to draft me such a letter???” one desperate parent wrote.
The South African Schools Act states that the head of department must inform parents in writing if their child is rejected by a school.
5km rule negatively affecting children from poor areas
The department of education in Gauteng is trying to rectify some of these challenges by amending its regulations. The deadline for public comments on the proposed changes closed last month.
Many parents have highlighted the 5km rule as a problem.
Because of the feeder school system, where children living within 5km of their school of choice are given first choice at attending that school, children from poorer areas are often prevented from going to school in areas where historically better-resourced schools are situated.
In a joint submission to the department, Equal Education (EE) and the Equal Education Law Centre said that school feeder zones had been narrowly drawn around the country’s previously privileged schools.
The Gauteng department of education is shifting away from the 5km rule as the only criterion for the determination of feeder zones, and the proposed amendments allow for a more “in-depth consideration” of the circumstances in which pupils are accessing schools, highlighting the need for geographical and spatial transformation, EE said.