THE government’s obligation to provide quality education has been clarified, and its progress can be tracked, following the release of a charter on basic education rights by the South African Human Rights Commission on Thursday.

Civil society bodies hoping to encourage improvements — or even basic standards — in schools have turned to the courts. Several cases last year stemmed from the dysfunction in many parts of the school system and a lack of efficient management, and financial constraints on provinces’ ability to provide education.

The commission on Thursday released a Charter of Children’s Basic Education Rights, which states the legal obligations on the government to ensure basic education, as well as services and support for children, and the educational outcomes that must be achieved.

Speaking at the launch of the charter, commission chairman Lawrence Mushwana said despite improvements in education, it was a "serious indictment on all of us" that South Africa was "still arguing about education norms and standards" years after the end of apartheid.

Along with setting out the obligations — ranging from safe and functional school institutions and ensuring access for, and retention of, pupils — the charter lists a range of indicators based on national and international commitments made by the state.

The commission will use these indicators to conduct an annual evaluation measuring the rate of progress in the system, based on the government’s data and time frames, but also data and research from community and academic organisations.

"The right to a basic education is a constitutionally protected right that is unequivocally guaranteed to all children in South Africa," said commissioner for children’s rights Lindiwe Mokate in the foreword of the charter.

It was a central right that was not qualified by expressions such as "available resources", "progressive realisation", or "reasonable legislative measures" which were applicable to other socioeconomic rights in the constitution.

Ms Mokate said while the charter was not a legal document, the commission hoped it would have a "standing all of its own" due to the consensus and scope of rights that it outlined.

Cameron McConnachie, an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre, which represented a number of civic organisations in court action against the government, yesterday welcomed the charter, saying it would be an "extremely useful reference" for activists, parents and pupils.

Court actions brought by civil society bodies include issues of teacher post provisioning in the Eastern Cape, national norms and standards for school infrastructure, and the timeous delivery of textbooks in Limpopo. All cases were finalised, by court order or by out-of-court settlement.

The deputy director-general for planning and oversight in the Department of Basic Education, Palesa Tyobeka, said on Thursday that while at a national level "a lot has been done, through clear policies and good intentions" the gaps in quality remained immense.