Vulnerable learners of Estralita Special School pawns in power struggle between unions and Mpumalanga Education Department, says FEDSAS and SAOU in urgent court application

31/07/2023 - Fedsas

Vulnerable learners of the Estralita Special School in Mpumalanga are being robbed of their constitutional right to education by the actions of members of among others the union Nehawu. And, through its lack of action and leadership, the Mpumalanga Education Department is complicit in this violation of learners’ rights.

This is the basis of an urgent court application by the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS), the South African Teachers’ Union (SAOU) and the Estralita school governing body.

 “Labour unrest at this school started in May last year. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that the school was closed for the entire second quarter of this year because hostel learners could not receive the specialised care they need,” state Ms Juané van der Merwe, Deputy CEO of FEDSAS, and Mr Chris Klopper, CEO of SAOU, in a combined media release.

Estralita provides education from grades R to 6 to learners with severe intellectual disabilities. The school has some 200 learners between the ages of five and 21, with most of the learners staying in the school’s two hostels.

Shift workers are refusing to work night and weekend shifts. The severe intellectual challenges faced by the learners require the presence of at least two shift workers and an educator during night and weekend shifts. “If the minimum required number of staff members are not present it could have life-threatening consequences for these vulnerable learners,” according to Van der Merwe and Klopper. 

The school governing body, FEDSAS and the SAOU repeatedly tried to remedy the situation. Complaints by the workers include issues with remuneration but the Mpumalanga Education Department has been slow to react. Although the provincial department ordered that the school should reopen for the third quarter, many parents are still hesitant to send their children back as there is no guarantee that they will receive the care they need .“It’s as if the provincial education department is expecting the school governing body and staff to act against the workers even though the department is the employer. Many learners have already lost so much teaching time that they might not be able to catch up in the time remaining,” according to FEDSAS and the SAOU.

“Although both FEDSAS and the SAOU view legal action as a last resort, it is clear that an urgent court interdict is the only solution. The school governing body has a duty to govern the school in cooperation with its education partners. However, this is not possible when there is no cooperation from an important partner such as the provincial education department.”

FEDSAS and the SAOU also agree that this situation has brought to light a serious lack of commitment to the rights of learners from both the provincial education department and the unions involved. “Vulnerable learners are used as pawns in a power struggle. And unfortunately, these learners will be the only losers. We cannot stand back and watch this happen and will do everything in our power to see to it that these learners’ education can continue in the safe environment that they are entitled to.”

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