Cape Town school reopens amid battle with education department over closure

Cape High Court ordered the school to remain open pending the outcome of a Supreme Court of Appeal ruling

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Photo of parents and teachers hugging
Parents hug teachers after hearing the news that Uitzig Secondary can remain open for now. Photo: Barbara Maregele

“We are going to prove to those who believed our school should close that we can make this a success,” says Charlene Faroo, principal at Uitzig Secondary School near Elsies River.

Faroo was addressing more than 80 learners and parents at the school on Thursday, where classes resumed for the first time this year.

The School Governing Body (SGB) has been at loggerheads with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) for the last four years over the possible closure of the school. Despite several protests and legal actions, Education MEC Debbie Schäfer made the decision in 2017 to shutdown Uitzig due to “numerous incidents of severe vandalism and theft” of school property and dwindling class sizes.

The SGB took the matter to the Cape High Court in 2018. The court upheld Schäfer’s decision to close the school. At the time, there were fewer than 90 learners at the school. The SGB, supported by Cosatu, then filed an urgent application to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) to challenge the High Court’s ruling. Judgment is yet to be made in this matter.

Parent and SGB member, Sharon Koeberg, said that when parents and learners arrived for the start of the academic year last week, the gates were locked. “For the sake of our children we had to go to court for them to open the school,” she said. Since then, Koeberg says they have been gathering at the school every day, pleading for it to be reopened.

On Wednesday afternoon, High Court Judge Thabani Masuku granted an urgent application brought by the SGB to force the department to reopen the school, pending the outcome of the SCA ruling.

In response to questions, Schäfer told GroundUp: “We are extremely saddened that learners are going to have to continue attending a school where they are not receiving the best education we can give them. We will be consulting our lawyers on the way forward as soon as possible.”

Back to school

When GroundUp arrived at the school on Thursday morning, dozens of learners wearing full school uniforms, were seated in small groups around the school grounds while several parents kept a watchful eye.

Grade 11 learner Justin Khan, 16, said that transfering to another school could pose a safety risk for learners who live in Uitsig. The nearest high schools are Ravensmead High in Ravensmead or St Andrew’s Secondary in Elsies River. Both are also situated in low-income areas and face high learner-to-teacher ratios.

“It’s too dangerous for me to go to St Andrew’s because the gangsters that side target you just because you come from Uitsig. I want to finish school and go to college to make a better life for myself,” he said.

Grade 12 learner Jody Kortje, 19, said many learners became demotivated when news of the school’s closure broke last year. “We were worried if we would be able to write exams. Our teachers really supported us. I hope things work out this year and that our matric pass rate is better than last year’s.”

The school’s matric pass rate has declined for the past three years, from 70.6% in 2016 to 20% in 2017 and 15% in 2018.

Koeberg said the matriculants’ poor performance was a result of the tension and uncertainty over the school’s closure. “We want this school to be rebuilt and more teachers to be hired,” she said. “The Department did not respond to any of our requests for help when it came to our matriculants. As a parent I am not happy about this. Seven teachers can’t be expected to run a high school,” she said.

Koeberg pointed out that most classrooms on the school’s first floor had been ransacked and stripped by criminals. Most are missing windows and doors. There are holes in the ceilings and all of the wiring and plug points have been removed.

“We try and fix the bottom classrooms where we can by closing the windows with cardboard sheets. Most of the grades share the prefab classes. The school property is big enough to build more classrooms.” She said they believe the department allowed the school to fall into disrepair in a bid to shut it down sooner.

Another parent Marlene Philander said her daughter would be left stranded if the school was to close. “My child was in grade 8 at Parow High last year but I can no longer afford the school fees and travelling costs. I am unemployed and a single parent, at least if she’s here I know she won’t have to walk alone to the taxi rank anymore,” she said.

“Since schools opened last week, my daughter has been waking up early by herself to come here every day. I can see she also wants to be here so I’m here to support her,” she said.

At about 10am, learners and parents welcomed several teachers back onto the school grounds. They were instructed to report to the department’s offices daily for the past week.

Eager to get learners to class, principal Faroo held a brief assembly where she said: “We had a hard start to our year, but we are here now and this is where the real work starts. We are a week behind other schools but the teachers are prepared and ready to work. So when you go home, spread the word to your friends still sitting at home that we are open.”

While the fate of the school is still uncertain, parents said they were relieved to see their children back in classrooms.

TOPICS:  Education

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