RECENTLY, a team from rights group Section27 visited 19 Limpopo schools recently. The purpose of the visit was to monitor the implementation of a plan developed by the Department of Basic Education to build toilets in 215 schools. On this visit, we saw numerous other challenges and heard stories of desperation.

In most Limpopo schools, a lack of funding has severely hampered day-to-day teaching and learning.

Under the South African Schools Act, the minister of basic education is required to prescribe national norms and standards for school funding, which must be implemented by the provincial education departments. These norms and standards create the following system:

• Schools are divided into five quintiles based on levels of poverty in their surrounding communities.

• Quintile one schools are the poorest schools and quintile five schools are in the wealthiest areas.

• Schools in quintiles one to three are classified as no-fee schools on the basis that the community sending their children to these schools cannot afford to pay school fees.

• These schools are therefore entitled to significant subsidies from the provincial education departments, to cover their day-to-day expenses such as paper, toner, chalk, electricity, firewood, toilet paper, cleaning materials and minor repairs and maintenance work on school infrastructure. This money therefore cuts across all aspects of basic education.

• The allocation per pupil paid by the provincial education departments (referred to as the "norms and standards funds") is based on the quintile in which the school is classified, with the highest amounts going to no-fee schools.

This is a great system, not least because, in theory, it gives meaningful access to our poorest communities to free basic education. What we are seeing in practice, though, is the complete opposite.

Following chronic mismanagement and corruption, the Cabinet intervened in the Limpopo education department on December 5 2011 and took over its obligations to deliver basic education to Limpopo pupils. One of the measures employed to curb spending in Limpopo’s education department is to reduce the norms and standards allocation, in some cases by 50%. This means that a school that was receiving R200,000 to operate must now cover the same expenses with R100,000. In addition, the norms and standards allocation is often paid to schools late, with the result that they purchase what they need on credit and incur large amounts of debt in the form of interest.

In some schools, principals and teachers are paying to cover their schools’ expenses. One principal we spoke to is paying more than R4,000 from his salary each month to cover his school’s basic needs.

At other schools, parents are asked to make contributions. In some cases, they determine what they can afford. At one school, parents declared R10 a year as their absolute maximum. At another school just down the road, parents have been asked to contribute R300 a child a year. Where the parents do not pay, the children are excluded from school.

And at the remaining schools, these day-to-day expenses are simply not covered and school must continue without chalk, paper and electricity.

In considering the effect of this, it is important to set the context of education in Limpopo. The most recent National Poverty Distribution Table published by the minister indicates the following:

• More than 28% of Limpopo schools fall within quintile one, which is the poorest category of public schools. Limpopo has the highest number of quintile one schools anywhere in the country.

• Only 8% of Limpopo schools fall under quintile five, the wealthiest category, while 31.4% of Gauteng schools and 31.7% of Western Cape schools are classified under quintile five.

• Six out of 10 public schools nationally fall within quintiles one to three and are no-fee schools, having been classified as such because of the high levels of poverty in the areas in which they are situated.

• In Limpopo, 77% of schools are classified in quintiles one to three.

• In Gauteng, 46.7% of schools are classified in quintiles one to three and 40.2% of schools in the Western Cape are.

This gives a clear indication of the disproportionate number of poor people living in Limpopo. We also may need to analyse whether the figure of 77% is not an under-estimation of impoverished communities, given that more than 80% of Limpopo schools still use basic pit toilets.

At 77% of schools in Limpopo, a request for R5 to contribute to firewood for lunch, or a ream of paper for worksheets, is simply not affordable. Many parents are unemployed or earn meagre salaries. And it is exactly those parents who should be benefiting from free basic education. The contrary is true.

What we see is a makeshift system of school fees that operates outside the checks and balances of the act:

• If I send my child to a quintile four or five school, I am presumed to be able to afford school fees. If I cannot, the law allows me to apply for a total or partial exemption from paying these fees. If I cannot pay fees, the law prohibits exclusion of my child from school or any other sanction.

• If I send my child to a quintile one school, however, I am presumed under the act not to be able to afford school fees. The state subsidises my child’s education in full. But if it fails to pay this allocation to my child’s school in full and on time, I will be asked for a contribution to cover my child’s schooling.

This contribution is ad hoc. It is not based in law or policy. I cannot apply for an exemption from these "school fees". If I cannot afford to pay them in full and on time, my child will be excluded from school. Schools are in a desperate situation and are doing what they can to prevent interruptions in education. But the situation illustrated above shows that we are on a slippery slope.

I am reminded of the Ugandan healthcare system, which in theory provides free antenatal and maternity care. In practice, however, due to budget cuts, mothers are expected to buy their own "mama kit", which contains the basic necessities for safe delivery of babies: sterile gloves, plastic sheeting, soap, gauze and a health card for the child.

A "mama kit" costs $7-$20. Those who do not arrive at the hospital with one are turned away, placing their lives and the lives of their babies at risk. How close are we to that kind of a system? Are Limpopo children at no-fee schools going to have to pay R5 for each spelling mistake? Are parents going to be required to pay an "incentive" so that teachers give their children homework?

To eliminate any doubt, I am not saying we should not provide free education. I am saying the opposite: that education is a basic right in law and we need to ensure full access to it in fact. But where the state does provide free education in law, and takes it away in implementation, then the beneficiaries, identified as deserving of free education in the first place, are the ones that lose out.

We have one of the most admirable constitutions in the world. We have a guarantee of the right to basic education. Let us not get caught in this parallel system in which quality basic education remains the exclusive territory of those who can afford it.

Stein is with Section27.