An analysis by Musa Rikhotso and Nomshado Lubisi

Lack of school space and scholar transport and, inadequate school infrastructure and resources are some of the common challenges that children, parents, and the Department of Basic Education grapple with in South Africa. These issues are often among those reported on by the media every year in January when it is time for schools to reopen.  In order to determine how these issues are reported as well as who speaks in the coverage, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) every year analyses selected media. The monitoring is also to check whether children’s rights are promoted and respected in the coverage. All this is in an effort to identify gaps and make suggestions on how the media can improve in their coverage of the back to school. Below, a few articles are used as examples to show the trends in media coverage.

Some of the issues the media focused on

Among the issues that dominated the media coverage of back to school is admission and placement of children in schools. This has been amongst the challenges the Department of Basic Education has been facing over the years especially in Gauteng as media coverage reveals annually. The year 2022 was no exception and an IOL story titled, “Gauteng education says more than 270 000 learners have been placed in schools so far” (08/01/2022) reveals that the Department of Basic Education officials are still working to ensure that 1 465 applicants who remain without school places are placed in various schools. According to the Department of Basic Education in a story published by The Citizen titled, “Unplaced pupils: Parents’ preference for ‘suburb schools’ blamed” (17/01/2022), the problem of unplaced pupils is because parents from townships prefer to take their children to suburban schools.

Meanwhile, Western Cape also experienced the problem of admission and placement. However, unlike Gauteng, its problems were mainly caused by budget cuts. According to News24 in its article, “Back to school: Western Cape scrambles to find places for tens of thousands of pupils amid  budget cuts”(17/01/2022), the Western Cape Education Department spokesperson, Bronagh Hammond said the province experiences growth in pupil numbers every year – something she describes as a challenge for the department.

A Columnist named Mojalefa Mashego also wrote about the challenges with admission and placement of learners and stated that the problem is likely to continue until all the schools are sufficiently equipped. He wrote this in his column titled, “Scramble for spaces will intensify until all schools are sufficiently equipped” (The Citizen, 17/01/2022).

The second issue that the media focused on when reporting on back to school this year was scholar transport. According to Daily Dispatch in an article titled, “Thousands of pupils could be stranded due to transport standoff” (18/01/2022), the “standoff” between service operators, who are still waiting to be paid for their services, and the provincial transport department could affect 103,000 Eastern Cape pupils who rely on the province’s scholar transport programme.

However, according to Sowetan in “Sorted transport problem adds to back-to-school joy” (13/01/2022), learners from Waaikraal informal settlement in Delmas did not have the same challenges as those in Eastern Cape as they had transport to take them to school. According to this story, this came after Sowetan reported in March, 2021 about the plight of Delmas children who walked between 10 and 22 kilometres to catch transport to school. After the publication of this story, the bus which used to wait for the children at Waaikraal started driving into the neighbouring farms to fetch the children.

This is the type of reporting that MMA always advocates for. If the media report on issues facing children, then the attention of duty bearers and policy makers will be grabbed. This is likely to result in action being taken to address those issues.

The other issue that also made it into the news as the media looked at back to school was Covid-19. News24 reported in its article, “Covid-19 protocols to remain in place at start of 2022 school year – Motshekga” (11/01/2022) that according to the Minister of Basic Education, the Covid-19 protocols that were in place when the 2021 school year ended would still be in place when pupils returned for the 2022 school year.

However, Western Cape MEC of Education urged the Minister of Basic Education to scrap the one meter policy for primary schools because only 12% of schools could cope with the policy. The story was published by News24 on 14th January, 2022 and was titled, “Scrap one-metre distance Covid-19 classroom rule, says Western Cape Education MEC”.

MMA commends the media for reporting on diverse issues affecting learners and in some cases, reporting that those issues were not new but had been reported previously. This ensures that relevant authorities understand that the issues faced by pupils are recurring issues which should be addressed with urgency.

Further, one of the importance of having diverse issues affecting children reported by the media ensures that all issues get equitable attention and redress. This is important especially if the issues hinder children’s access to quality education.

First time learners

Beyond the challenges aforementioned, the media has made it a tradition to report on children who are going to school for the first time, usually showing pictures of the learners preparing for or arriving at school. Some of the pictures are taken whilst the lessons are underway. The media has used the pictures to capture the mayhem and excitement of starting school. These pictures usually show the excitement of a new experience or the trauma of being away from home or a caregiver. In the past, the media has had more pictures showing new learners crying or nervous and scared of starting school than those showing excited and happy children. Showing more pictures of children crying about their starting school has an influence on the public’s and especially children’s perception of this event – that it is a daunting and traumatic experience. Worse is that those children who are shown crying or in other negative ways in the media have their right to privacy and especially dignity violated. Those children become at more risk of suffering victimisation.

MMA applauds media for using pictures that depict children mostly in a good manner and for not violating the children’s privacy and dignity during the back to school coverage of the year 2022. For example, Sowetan in its story titled, “Tears and kisses mark first day at school” (12/01/2022) opted to show children facing the opposite direction.

Missing children’s voices

Despite having diverse issues and using positive pictures of first time learners, the media has been found lacking when it comes to giving children voices. This has been common when it comes to back to school reporting and general reporting on children in the media as has been found by MMA. For example, Sowetan in its article,Sorted transport problem adds to back-to-school joy” (13/01/2022) focuses on scholar transport and mentions that a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl were among the learners to have to queue for the provided transport. However, instead of talking to both the learners, the story only interviews and quotes parents, neglecting the key voices of the learners who got to experience the joy first hand after having had previously struggled with long distances to school as a result of lack of school transport.

Such a failure to add children’s voices to coverage of them is not unique to back to school reporting. According to MMA’s media monitoring findings of how children were reported on in 2020, only 7% of stories on children had voices of children. Excluding children’s voices to stories about them perpetuates the stereotype that children are not important enough to speak in issues facing them. This can potentially result in lack of redress by policy makers as children will not have a platform to engage the policy makers on what the children expect of them.

However, not all was gloom and doom. Albeit small, the media did try to make an effort to access children. For example, Sowetan accessed a grade R and a 14-year-old learner about their experience starting and resuming school in its story titled,  “Smooth sailing start to school year in Mamelodi” (12/01/2022).  

The grade R learner, Kganyetso Maleka is quoted saying, “I’m very happy to be at school and I did not sleep waiting to wear my school uniform for the first time and I’m going to make new friends.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Overall, media’s reporting of back to school related events in 2022 has been better than in previous years. This year, there were much fewer pictures of children that violated their rights to privacy and dignity from the monitored media. The media must be commended for heeding MMA’s call to protect the dignity of the learners especially those that are beginning their school years.

Furthermore, while MMA commends the media for diversity in issues reported during the 2022 back to school, we urge the media to include to coverage other issues that are often neglected when reporting on back to school. For example, the challenges that learners with special needs face can be one of the helpful topics that can be included to the media’s coverage of this event.

The media also needs to improve when it comes to giving children a voice because there were few voices from learners in coverage of the 2022 back to school. This event should be used by the media as an extra opportunity to provide a platform for children to voice their opinions on issues that affect them. The media must do this while ensuring speaking in such coverage is in the children’s best interest.

Edited by Lister Namumba