An Unfair Start for Learners in Poor Schools
Parents are being forced to buy classroom supplies for their children in no-fee schools.
The Pandemic has enabled government officials to take further advantage of the poor. Officials create illegal regulations that leave poor parents indebted. In what an official confirmed to be fundraising efforts, some poor schools’ heads push parents to buy stationery that is already budgeted for by the Department of Basic Education.
Vulnerable and ignorant parents’ hopes for education for their children is being crashed by unauthorised financial burden being encouraged by the Western Cape Education Department
WCED has failed to inform such parents that all learning materials are supplied by the government
WCED has further failed to explain how such schools convert the materials purchased directly by parents into cash
The same Department has also failed to explain what happened to the funds allocated for learning materials
Parents are getting a crash course in ruthless capitalism at their children’s no-fee school in Bonteheuwel. Central Park Primary School is threatening them into buying classroom supplies and at inflated prices.
60% of all children in South Africa attend no-fee schools like Central Park and the state pays for their education. The Department of Basic Education through the provincial department of Education procures and delivers learning materials to learners in such schools. Additionally, learners are entitled to a grant.
The scheme at Central Park Primary is generating a bonanza for the school administration and the supplier involved, this journalist has found, although it is still not clear how the school directly benefits from the scheme.
Western Cape Education Department worked out a private deal with a small Johannesburg-based startup, Funworld Production, which owns an online business called schoolmall.co.za, to sell the classroom supplies to parents. According to the Treasury document in the 2020/21 financial year, the Department of Basic Education was allocated R3.7 billions for learning materials for 24,000 public schools that included Central Park Primary School in the Western Cape.
Schoolmall.co.za sells packages of classroom basics - paper, pencils, crayons, glue and more – at inflated prices, in some cases almost double what retailers charge. Central Park Primary school strongly recommended that parents buy the stationery through schoolmall.co.za to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A parent of a child who got enrolled in Grade R at the school in 2021 fretted her daughter would miss out because she could not afford to buy the items that the school said would “…enable your child to get the maximum enjoyment and benefit from the year.”
But for this mom, buying the needed supplies would be a tall order. She’d lost her livelihood as a domestic worker when the government imposed the lockdown measure to contain the COVID-19. Desperate, she turned to her employer who offered to buy the items to ensure the child had the items needed to excel in class.
“When I looked at the listed items, I wondered, ‘What’s all this stuff? Why does a Grade R pupil need four reams of A4 paper?
“The cost of the listed items exceeded R1,000. Can poor parents whose children attend no-fee schools afford to buy classroom supplies and is it their responsibility?” wondered the employer, who requested anonymity for her domestic worker to avoid retribution from the school.
With the Western Cape Education Department’s share of the R3.7 billion 2020/21 budget for school supplies, why would a no-fee school ask parents to fork out money for their children’s stationery?
Our investigation found the Department is somewhat complicit in the scheme and seem to encourage schools to push poor parents to buy stationery. Ms C. A Schabalala, the acting principal of Central Park Primary, promptly asked us to contact the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) when we reached out to ask why her no-fee school requires parents to buy stationery.
We suspect the real purpose behind the school supplies scheme is for individuals to benefit from the loopholes found in public procurement processes. Spokesperson to the MEC for Education in Western Cape Province, Kerry Mauchline, says the district office engaged with Central Park School following our enquiries.
“The principal explained that the list is not compulsory, it is voluntary – to assist the school with covering expenses. The district has advised the principal to write to parents explaining that it is not compulsory very clearly. Regarding the “preferred supplier” interpretation, the letter clearly states that the supplier is recommended (not required).”
That flies in the face of the promises by the government to ensure equality in the country’s schooling system. The covid-19 lockdown measure further exposed how the system doesn’t work for everybody. Learners in poor communities lacked access to data, electricity, devices or stationery, and the resources issues were worsened by the lack of adequate spaces to live, let alone learn.
Angus Mckenzie, the councillor of ward 50 where Central Park Primary School is located said he wasn’t aware parents at the school are buying school supplies, or that they are required to use their resources to buy online.
The admission letter from the school also had a telephone number for use by parents who wished to purchase supplies from www.schoolmall.co.za but lacked access to the Internet.
“Further, given that the list was clearly printed on the back of the (admission) letter, it cannot be claimed that those without Internet cannot access the list,” said Mauchline, responding to our concern that many parents cannot afford the data and airtime to enable them to buy things that their kids already qualify for under the state’s social protection measures.
Mauchline, like a bad PR practitioner, largely dismissed the public interest issues we had raised in a follow-up email communication: “Any parent who is concerned about being improperly required to purchase items at a no-fee school is encouraged to contact their district office immediately to report it so that our officials can take it up with the school.”
We phoned schoolmall.co.za and requested a quotation for the listed items for the 2021 Grade R class at Central Park Primary School. The supplied quotes, which the online shop, sent via WhatsApp, totalled R1,426.27. Central Park Primary School enrolled thirty children to the Grade R this year, meaning Schoolmall would pocket some R42,788.10 if all the parents purchased from the recommended supplier.
We called the phone number in Johannesburg to get a first-hand experience of a parent without access to the Internet. A representative of the online shop asked for our WhatsApp number and sent a list of requirements, including the child’s names, contact and school details. In less than an hour, we received a quotation labelled ‘invoice’.
From the quotation and banking details, we found that the domain Schoolmall.co.za was registered on 17 October 2017. The VAT number associated with the provided quotation is assigned to Funworld Production cc, a school brand management company. It’s unclear from its website what the company’s mission is exactly. Funworld Production cc was a shelf-company registered in 1990. On June 29, 2006 the company was offloaded to Gayl Ally of Ontdekkers Park, Florida. Ally did not respond when we called her mobile number to learn more about the company.
Meanwhile, many poor parents at Central Park Primary went ahead and bought the stationery for fear of their children missing out. The administration of the school is yet to act on the Department’s alleged instruction to communicate to all parents that they don’t need to buy school supplies unless they want to offer support. Which leaves us wondering, why hasn’t the Western Cape Education Department provided Central Park Primary School with the supplies? How many no-fee schools have not received the supplies? Where’s the empathy for communities on the economic margins whose lives are disproportionately affected by the covid-19 health crisis?