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Physical facilities for an educational system in transition in South Africa

Shelagh Nation
Education: The instruction of a child (or, by extension, an adult) to fit him for the work of life.


The educational policy set in place by Verwoerd assumed that black citizens would always be, and I quote, "hewers of wood and drawers of water". As a result, South Africa now has an inappropriate educational system (and no certainty yet on a new one). The old policy is now history, and South Africa's educationalists are now engaged in developing new, more appropriate directions, in line with the Reconstruction and Development Plan developed by the ANC. Many of the problems still remain, however, and are not going to disappear conveniently if ignored.


Some of the more pertinent problems have little to do directly with the built environment, but may well affect the architectural approach to specific projects. Problems relate to:

1. Teaching staff

Architects respond by providing flexible, multi-use learning spaces where teachers' aides may assist in team teaching, or (to take a specific example, Science laboratories are laid out in such a way that until Science teachers are available the space will not stand idle but may be used for other subject teaching

2. General community problems

Only time and an emphasis on the rewards inherent in education will induce a change in attitude. Older students might, in light of the stated limit of free and compulsory education for the first ten years, move out of schools and into a Matric College situation.

3. Built facilities

4. Learning environment technology

The architect is responsible for both an in depth understanding of local conditions and problems and, where necessary the ability to communicate and persuade.

Some answers

The difficulties referred to above are being overcome in a number of ways. There is not just one solution, but a number of options, related to planning, erection, staffing and maintenance, and affected by outside issues of policy, support and finance.

1. State support

The ANC has published a policy document - their "Reconstruction and Development Plan" - which is in effect a statement of intent on a number of aspects, one of the predominating issues being that of education and training at all levels. New directions in education are being investigated, and new educational authorities formed.

While this does not necessarily guarantee action, it at least provides evidence of a real concern and support for the issues involved.

Inevitably, any revision to the system will, and indeed should, be gradual. (One need only look at the situation in Mocambique, where baby and bath water were thrown out together, to observe the terrible result: a population reduced to illiteracy in a generation). But the setting of attainable targets related to educational processes is essential to the process.

Once these educational targets have been decided it will be possible to provide performance based guidelines for physical facilities to accommodate them. (The SAPSE and SAMEP norms referred to earlier addressed maximum space and cost standards, but came to be regarded as a cast in stone standards rather than an "upper limit").

To assist the State in the process of educational change a number of consultative Fora, democratic in the widest sense of the word, have been set up. Each Forum includes various representatives of provincial education authorities, NGOs, training departments, private sector, teachers, organised business. and organised labour, as well as student, parent, teacher, post school and statutory organisations. These fore, cumbersome though they are, are necessary during the present sensitive times; a "top down" approach is presently unacceptable.

2. Private sector support

The private sector supports a number of educational initiatives. READ (Reading for Education and Development) is one of the many organisations already providing support in the way of teacher training, supply of books, literacy programs and outreach actions.

Institutions for tertiary education, engineers, architects, industrialists, mining houses, builders, banks, electricity supply commissions, churches. and numerous non government organisations (NGOs) all support individual educational programs; many have done so for a number of years.

Universities and others are examining large group teleteaching, team teaching, and a variety of electronic aids, each of which could have some specific slot in the system, even if none are in themselves a cure all, and each of which could have some impact on the brick and mortar spaces which they demand.

3. Existing facilities

A range of facilities exists, from the two roomed farm school to the sophisticated urban university. Each of these will have to be re-examined against specific needs, and modified if necessary.

4. New directions

Some of the issues under consideration are:

4.1 Community participation and ownership

Community participation in and ownership of projects is being introduced to an unprecedented extent. In the Eastern Cape, in an impoverished township, 12 schools which had been vandalised beyond repair (even the foundations of some had been taken away) were replaced with new schools - not built on the old pattern - on unfenced sites, fiercely protected from theft by members of the community. In Orange Farm, South of Johannesburg, a teacher too impatient to wait for the new regime converted chicken sheds on a farm to a creditable and active self help school.

In the same area, the dual management system was developed and the community has discovered an indirect system of lease back or buy back, so that an initial donor's money becomes seed money for school after school.

Each of these projects, in its own way, is contributing to better and more freely available education.

4.2 Converting existing building stock to fill needs

A gold mine which was due to close is converting old mine hostels, in close consultation with the nearby community, into an attractive private school; the low cost buildings make fees more affordable.

A central Johannesburg building is to be converted to provide further education at various levels. Where C grade office space is standing empty and there is a reasonably dense population level, there is an opportunity to convert buildings to educational use. Alternatively, they may provide both educational and residential space.

4.3 Alternative ways of providing essential services

The Division of Building Technology has published a "Red Book", a services guideline manual dealing with all the essential services so often taken for granted. It includes information and guidance on:

4.4 Economies of cost, scale and usage

The possibility of a magic solution in the form of some really low cost alternative building method is always around the corner. Numerous low cost options have already been developed and used, (mainly for walling systems).

But the cost of running a school will commonly overtake its capital cost within a three to four year period. The greatest contribution which can be made is, in effect, a high utilisation of everything in and about the school 12 hours a day and seven days a week, if this is possible.

A private primary school in Pretoria with this high level of usage makes its classrooms available after hours to Ikageng, an NGO which provides continuing education, as well as a new administration block for Ikageng's exclusive use. The school Hall is also hired out to other organisations, including a church organisation on Sundays.

A Pretoria high school has built a comprehensive library/ resource/ computer centre, which it makes available to the general public in the same way and for the same extended hours.

4.5 New types of educational facilities

A global view of all schools in the country might, it seems, show that the concept of "what a school is" may be due for revision. The development of "centres for education" which could supplement, if not supplant, some conventional schools, is being investigated by one of South Africa's larger industrialists.

This breakaway from the compartmented thinking of the past centres activity around high usage, high tech areas - science, library, resources, information, craft and music centres - with playing fields and classrooms for all age levels of students clustered around these functions. One aim of this project is to realise the 12 hours a day concept.

4.6 Design for flexibility and adaptability

It has never been more important for buildings to be designed (or converted) to be flexible in use, adaptable to changes in educational policy and teaching methods, and appropriate to their function related to a wide range of users.

The need for a "loose fit", comfortable approach becomes vividly clear in the conversion of old facilities to new uses; without this approach the users are severely hampered.


Without the necessary research, providers of facilities will find it difficult to respond to an educational system in transition in the "new" South Africa, now more than ever a developing society. They may then find themselves stuck in the same old rut or they may resort to "management by crisis".

CSIR is in the forefront of the much needed investigation, research and development in the many faceted field of the provision of physical facilities for education. We live in "exciting times". Watch this space!

Please cite as: Nation, S. (1994). Physical facilities for an educational system in transition in South Africa. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 178-182. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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