The provincial education department says any decision to close schools will be taken ethically, carefully and absolutely in line with the SA Schools Act.
The department was responding to an urgent high court challenge to its apparent decision to close four farm schools in the Fort Beaufort district – or any other school – without following the letter of the law.
The department last year indicated it intended closing more than 2000 “unviable” schools.
But, in a comprehensive statement, the department has now denied that any final decision had been taken to close Huntley Glen, Belmont, Belvedere and Lynedoch farm schools – or any other school.
The Legal Resources Centre (LRC), which is acting for the four schools and the Centre for Child Law, said last week that there had been no consultation as required by law before a decision was taken to close the four schools.
In sworn statements, parents, farmers and staff at the four schools detailed how they were simply informed by department officials that the schools would be closed and the children would have to attend a boarding school in Adelaide some 80km away.
But departmental spokesman Loyiso Pulumani said no final decision on precisely how many schools would be closed had been taken.
He said the province had the highest concentration of small schools in the country, which had a devastating impact on the demand for teachers, the finances of the department and the quality of education.
He said closure of small schools and concentrating enrolment in a smaller number of larger schools would improve efficiency of teacher deployment and other critical cost drivers such as infrastructure, furniture, learning and teaching materials, hostels, nutrition and transport.
But he said the decision to close schools would not be taken lightly and all constitutional, legal and other obligations would be considered.
A rigorous and complex assessment of schools identified as unviable and marginal would be made before a decision was taken on closure.
Once this was decided, the schools would be informed of the decision and the reasons behind it and a process of consultation and representations would begin.
He said meetings held in the Fort Beaufort district with teachers, parents and farmers had merely been an information-sharing exercise.
“No school was ever informed that they would be closed.”
LRC attorney Cameron McConnachie said yesterday the Centre for Child Law and the LRC welcomed the statement, but it was unclear why the department had not responded to letters and e-mails requesting an undertaking not to close the schools.
This would have avoided the necessity of the schools resorting to court. The high court challenge will go ahead, “but it appears there will now be no need for the department to oppose the application”, he said.