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Only 20% of SA schools connected for learning

Government says 71% of SA schools are connected to the Internet. The truth is a little different, reports the MEDIA HACK COLLECTIVE

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How many of South Africa’s public schools are connected to the internet?

You’d think this would be an easy question to answer. But, it isn’t. The answer you get depends on the source.

For example, in a presentation to parliament in March, the Department of Basic Education said that 17,517 schools were connected to the internet – or 71% of schools. But, the most recent Neims report (August 2019) states that, at most, 11,465 of South Africa’s public schools have access to the internet – that’s 49% of the public schools.

The Niems report also states that 4,695 schools have access for teaching and learning – that’s about 20% of schools – and 6,770 schools have internet for admin purposes – that’s 29%.

The department appears to add the schools with teaching and admin together to get the total number of schools.

If you go back 5 years to the 2014 Niems report, it would appear that since then only 1,076 additional public schools have been connected to the internet, most of them for admin purposes.

What is the Neims report?

Niems is the National Education Infrastructure Management System, an electronic planning and management tool was set up in 2007 to allow for ‘real-time’ access to information about the condition of infrastructure and facilities at South Africa’s public schools. Every year or so the Department of Basic Education releases a report on school infrastructure drawn from Niems and makes it available on its website.

You’d think Niems reports would be a reliable source of information, right?

Maybe not, because they don’t appear to have taken into account internet connectivity provided to schools by cell phone network operators since 2014.

According the department’s March presentation, 4,697 schools have been connected by Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Liquid Telecoms/Neotel since 2014. The actual total depends on where you look and may be as high as 4,831.

In 2014 the government’s Independent Communications Authority (Icasa) put in place Universal Service and Access Obligations (USAO) for network operators which required them to provide ICT equipment and internet connectivity to public schools. The target was 5,250 schools shared between Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Neotel/Liquid Telecoms. So the cell operators are close to their target number.

Also the Department of Post and Telecommunications through the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA has connected 555 schools, according to a DBE presentation.

In spreadsheets submitted in response to parliamentary questions in 2016 and April 2020 listing the schools provided with internet access by the cell networks, we counted 4,825 schools. So, if you add this number to the USAASA schools you get 5,380 additional schools that have been connected to the internet since 2014.

That means around 15,769 schools are connected to the internet at present – that’s quite a big difference from the 11,465 in the 2019 Niems report. And it means that around 68% of schools are connected to the internet.

But it’s still 1,745 schools short of the 17,514 schools the DBE said were connected. Why is there such a big difference?

The department was clearly not talking about just public schools in its presentation because it stated the total number of schools as 24,775. That’s around 1,500 more schools than the 23,258 public schools in the 2019 Niems report, and the 23,076 in the latest School Realities Report and the 23,313 public schools in the 2019 schools masterlist. See, it’s even hard to pin down the total number of public schools in the country.

So the 17,514 schools the department said are connected to the internet must include independent schools.

Only 8% of those schools have high-speed connectivity, according to the department’s presentation.

So, from what we can ascertain from the Niems reports and documents submitted in parliament by the Department of Basic Education, it seems that roughly two-thirds of SA’s public schools are connected to the internet, but most of them have low-speed connectivity.

* Feature courtesy of the Media Hack Collective, a group of independent journalists dedicated to quality journalism and the craft of digital storytelling. 

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