Dunoon schools: when lawyers go beyond the courtroom

| Sherylle Dass and Demichelle Petherbridge
Dunoon children protest about the problems with schooling. Photo by Brady Nevins.

The struggle to ensure access to schools for Dunoon learners illustrates the value of social justice lawyers engaging in work beyond the courtroom.

The recent crisis of unplaced learners in Dunoon highlighted poor planning and a lack of responsiveness on the part of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) to the plight of impoverished communities.

The State has a duty to make sure that children have access to schools.

In her recent article There’s More to the Schooling Crisis than Meets the Eye, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille attempts to shift the blame to parents and other adults in Dunoon, echoing the attitude in the WCED’s previous press statement on the matter, where desperate parents were labelled “invaders”. It is unfortunate that the Premier ignores the context of life in Dunoon, and avoids responding to the charge that the WCED is failing to provide an adequate long term response to insufficient space in schools in poor communities.

Cramped next to the N7 near Milnerton in the Western Cape, Dunoon is a small and overcrowded informal settlement. The 2011 Census revealed that 77% of households in Dunoon – which consist on average of 2.7 people – earned R3,200 or less a month. Many residents live in small shacks without basic services.

There are only two primary schools, Dunoon Primary School and Sophakama Primary School. Both are overcrowded, and for more than six months this year many children were not accommodated at schools, often being left by working parents at home unsupervised. In June, parents and volunteers began conducting classes inside a temporary structure which had been set up for learners waiting for their new school, Sopakhama Primary, to be completed, and which had been left vacant when learners were moved to Sopakhama. About 130 children attended these informal classes.

The Equal Education Law Centre, acting on behalf of Equal Education and a committee of parents, engaged with the WCED, in an effort to ensure that the children could attend fully functioning schools and be provided with catch up classes. The EELC collected a list of names of more than 750 learners who community members believed had not been enrolled for 2015, 482 of whom were of compulsory schooling age. According to the WCED, 130 of the children were in fact already registered on the Central Education Management Information Systems, and were recorded as attending a school, meaning that 352 learners required a place. According to community members, many parents had in fact been to schools to complete applications, but had been told that the schools were too full and simply turned away.

This was not the EELC’s first experience of inadequate access to schools in the Western Cape’s poorer areas. Earlier this year we represented more than 100 unplaced children in Mitchell’s Plain and Atlantis. Many families there described the same experience as those in Dunoon – they had been turned away from overcrowded schools.

Following several meetings between the EELC, Dunoon community members, and the WCED, the Department promised to open the temporary structure for classes, and to provide resources for a temporary school until a more long-term solution could be found.

Unfortunately, during the engagements it emerged that a small number of people in Dunoon attempted to promote their own agendas. But the grievances of these individuals were not, as the Premier claims, the cause of the conflict in Dunoon. That cause was the structural crisis in education faced by children and their families.

Premier Zille claims that only 113 learners required placement in a school. In reality there were at least 352 children of compulsory schooling age who were not registered on the WCED system. The fact that some of these learners weren’t captured during registration in mid-August doesn’t undermine their right to schools.

Together with Equal Education, we have repeatedly demanded that the WCED develop long term plans to cater for access to schools. These plans must take account of children moving from other provinces, and mechanisms need to be put in place to enrol learners coming to the Western Cape in the middle of the year.

Next year many Dunoon children will reach compulsory schooling age, and others who didn’t attend the August registration are likely to register next year. With the addition of learners moving into the Province, the WCED needs to provide an adequate answer to the question of long term planning for learner enrollment. At the least, families in Dunoon need assurance about placement for next year, and the planned status of the temporary school.

The EELC, working together with the parents’ committee and Equal Education, was able to assist in asserting the rights of learners in Dunoon. But there were a number of challenges.

First, while the community held a deep-seated belief that a violation had taken place, their response to this was initially fractured, and did not necessarily translate into a legal claim. By being present on the ground in Dunoon, attorneys at the EELC were able to assist and support community members to articulate their grievances as a violation of a right.

Second, when Dunoon community members occupied the vacated, temporary structure, the EELC was able to assist in ensuring that they were not simply removed without a recognition of the urgency of their concerns and legitimate purpose of their actions. The EELC was able to support the community in its engagements with the WCED, which ultimately led to the use of the temporary structure this year. In the process, attorneys from the EELC worked to notify families of the registration days and the opening of the school, and were present during those processes.

Finally, by being present in the community, EELC attorneys were able to identify the small number of community members concerning themselves with their own agenda, and could assert the need to prioritise only the best interests of Dunoon’s children.

Social justice lawyers cannot restrict themselves to the courtroom – they have a critical role to play in assisting communities on the ground. In Dunoon, the learners’ needs were immediate and urgent, and while parties could have gone to court over the matter, engagement provided a speedier, and more flexible, approach to a solution.

Sherylle Dass is a Senior Attorney, and Demichelle Petherbrige is a Candidate Attorney, at the Equal Education Law Centre. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Education Government Human Rights

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