New regulations to fix public schools in South Africa – with tight deadlines

 ·30 May 2024

The Department of Basic Education has gazetted new regulations which compel all schools in the country to meet minimum energy, sanitation and infrastructure standards—or put them in their active plans—within the next 12 to 18 months.

The regulations, titled Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure, 2023, have been a controversial and contested set of rules over the last few years, given the department frequently missing its own targets to fix public school infrastructure in the country.

The regulations were first gazetted in 2013, when the DBE made commitments to fix infrastructure in public schools through interventions over three years (i.e., by 2016), with a wider commitment to phase in others over ten years (i.e. by 2023).

Interventions included providing public school students with a safe environment that meets their basic needs, such as access to basic infrastructure like electricity, water, classrooms, and libraries, and removing harmful substances such as asbestos.

However, the department missed these deadlines and continually extended them. For example, by 2023—at the end of the ‘phased in’ deadline— it was reported that more than 3,300 of South Africa’s 23,000 public schools still used pit latrines.

Controversially, in 2022, the department put forward draft proposals to drop the deadlines altogether – which faced significant backlash.

The new regulations gazetted this week, however, have deadlines in tow – with some extremely tight, given the government’s poor track record of being able to meet them.

According to the new regulations:

  • Schools without access to power, water, or sanitation will have 18 months (i.e., until the end of 2026) to comply with the regulations related to these.

  • School buildings built from mud, asbestos, metal and wood must be replaced with structures that comply with the regulations within 12 months of the gazette being published (ie, mid-2025).

  • Schools that do not have adequate perimeter fencing to comply with the norms and standards have 12 months (mid-2025) to comply.

“Provincial departments must, when implementing these Regulations, explore every avenue to give effect to the norms and standards contained in these Regulations and must consider appropriate alternatives when necessary,” the department said.

Provincial departments must also facilitate and coordinate the responsibilities of government agencies and entities that provide infrastructure and related services.

Each provincial department must also submit a detailed infrastructure plan on the implementation of the infrastructure programme 90 days after the beginning of each financial year, which must be published on the DBE and PED websites for public access.

The gazetted regulations also bring in line some definitions and avenues to keep up with the latest developments in South Africa – such as including grade R in the definitions for primary schools, and listing alternative energy such as solar PV, wind and generators.

The gazette also lists other standards, such as classroom sizes (Grade R, a maximum of 30, for all other grades a maximum of 40) as well as where schools may not be built (eg, next to a tavern/shebeen or cemetery), among others.

The new minimum standards for public schools can be seen in the gazette below, or downloaded here:

Read: Alarm bells for Afrikaans schools

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