Big changes coming for schools in South Africa

 ·27 Oct 2022

The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) has laid out its plans to improve school buildings and education-related infrastructure across South Africa for the next few years, in line with a new plan published for public comment this past week.

The department published the phase 2 documentation of its National Infrastructure Plan 2050 for public comment, detailing the path that government will follow in realising its major infrastructure projects over the next 30 years.

In the education sector, the department acknowledged the shortcomings of the government’s current infrastructure goals, such as many schools still being left with pit toilets and no access to the internet or libraries, but charted a way forward out of this situation.

Most notably, one of the biggest changes expected over the 30-year plan is a concerted move towards computer labs and other tech-related facilities for both schools and tertiary education institutions.

This aligns with the Department of Basic Education’s wider goals to adopt new tech subjects like robotics and coding, as well as to push learners into more vocational and occupational studies.

The DBE is currently responsible for over 22,000 schools, providing Grade RR to Grade 12 education. Since 2021, the department has also been responsible for early childhood development centres (ECD).

The Department of Higher Education and Training, meanwhile, is responsible for post-school education, which currently comprises 26 universities and 50 public vocational colleges, nine community colleges, as well as numerous private higher education and private colleges. Plans are underway to transfer agricultural colleges into this portfolio.

The DPWI said that expenditure on education infrastructure in South Africa exceeds R12 billion every year, which is spent by provincial departments.

Despite the large budget, however, many problems remain:

  • Conservative estimates are that there is a R10 billion shortfall in spending, leading to a massive backlog in maintenance at education facilities;
  • Schools still struggle with water and sanitation. While 99% of schools in the country have sanitation infrastructure, it is often unusable;
  • Schools and universities are overcrowded, with schools averaging up to 40 learners per classroom;
  • Only one-third of public schools have any form of internet access. 75% don’t have access to a library or computer centre, and 84% have no internet for teaching or learning purposes;
  • Of 22,000 schools, only 848 are full-service schools – and learners still struggle to access them due to poor transport integration;
  • For universities, there is a shortfall of half a million student housing units, and computer labs and properly equipped laboratories are in short supply.

To tackle these issues and more, the department is plotting a course to 2050 with a strong focus on getting the basics right at schools, while also ensuring that schools and universities are equipped to handle the move towards tech.

For students because of the expected increase in numbers and the lack of universities and tertiary institutes to accommodate them, many will turn to remote and online learning. On top of building more facilities, the department recommends implementing non-infrastructure solutions to deal with this.

Despite this, to address the urgent needs at schools, the department wants permanent and mobile classrooms to be rapidly deployed to address overcrowding and for budgets to be reprioritised to focus on better equipping labs and workshops.

The government also plans to work with the private sector for financing and ensure that all education facilities are connected to broadband internet.

“Systems will be in place for learners to access online educational content after hours. Access, reliability and usage will be reviewed annually,” it said.

Another expected change is for unused buildings under the purview of the various departments and provincial governments to be repurposed and converted into ECD and community colleges to meet demand.

The Department of Higher Education and Training will also develop a comprehensive strategy to address student housing, particularly for low-income users.

Short-term goals

The DPWI said that over the next three years, it aims to achieve several goals:

The department will develop an ECD infrastructure plan, and enrolments in this sector will double. More schools will be built, meeting minimum infrastructure norms and standards, and the use of non-infrastructure solutions like connecting schools via broadband will be pushed.

It also wants to ensure that existing facilities are used at 75% – or 1,500 hours per year. This will require facilities to be refurbished or upgraded. Underutilised classrooms, meanwhile, will be transitioned to community colleges or ECD facilities.

Over the longer term, the department highlighted the following outcomes:

  • New schools to replace structures built with inappropriate materials;
  • A strong focus on labs and computer rooms;
  • Student accommodation: 300,000 beds at 300 institutions over the next 10 years;
  • All schools and colleges will have internet access and associated infrastructure.

Read: Big changes coming for public transport in South Africa – including upgraded taxis and a national ticketing system

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