Eastern Cape is one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. Formerly the homeland of Transkei, it was used mainly by the apartheid Government as a recruiting ground for black workers for the mines and factories of Johannesburg and the Rand. It still suffers from the population distortions of the apartheid era - a high proportion of older citizens and children remain, while the economically active population drifts away to richer provinces, such as Gauteng and the Western Cape, in search of jobs.
The Provincial Government of Eastern Cape has to administer a system of 2 million students, 68,000 teachers and 6,500 schools – a huge task. One of its biggest challenges is providing decent buildings in which to educate its children. The majority of schools are in a poor state with unhygienic toilets, no running water and electricity and few facilities for sport or recreation. Most repairs, maintenance and even building works fall to the local community.
There are problems inside the classroom too. Many teachers are poorly trained and even principals lack the skills to administer the curriculum and get the best out of their students. Corporal punishment is still used despite being banned by the Government. Sexual harassment of girls by their male teachers is not uncommon. Some schools are still suspending students for non-payment of fees even though the Government has forbidden this practice.
Motivation levels among teachers and students plummet as ill-health and Aids take their toll. Many hours of teaching are lost through union meetings, absenteeism and memorial services for the victims of Aids.
The budget for education allocated to the province by the National Government last year was 9.9 billion rand (nearly £1 million). 85% of this figure is for employment costs while the other 15% is for administration and resources.
In 2003, over half the money allocated to administration and resources went unspent last year and was returned to the national exchequer. There were supposed to be 3,000 new teachers appointed that year. Virtually none of the posts were filled
This goes to the heart of the problems facing education in the poorer provinces like Eastern Cape. There is a gap between the targets the province has set itself and the management and financial structures in place to carry them out.
But it's not all bad news. Many communities are energetic and ambitious for their children. They have motivated their children, built classrooms and bought books and paper, all with minimal resources. Many schools have produced amazing exam results despite appalling facilities. There are also outstanding teachers and principals doing excellent work and turning out well-educated students.
Many educators are determined to succeed and believe that the structures are being built and the planning is taking place that will give Eastern Cape an education system to be proud of in the 21st century.