Too much politicking, not enough teaching

2012-09-15 11:27

As 2012’s matriculants face the end of the year, Mamphela Ramphele’s new book makes for sobering reading. Here’s an edited extract

The monumental failure to successfully transform our education system undermines any effort to promote a more equitable society.

Our failure is a betrayal of the generation of young people who, on June 16 1976, stood up to a brutal apartheid regime and refused to continue to be subjected to “gutter education”.

One cannot but agree with the statement in the National Planning Commission’s (NPC’s) Diagnostic Review, published in mid-2011, that: “One of apartheid’s greatest crimes was the provision of substandard education to black people.”

The NPC goes on to admit that: “Efforts (by post-apartheid governments) to raise the quality of education for poor children have largely failed.”

The critical question is what is the cause of this failure?

The NPC states the obvious: school performance is crucially linked to the role of teachers, principals and parents.

In our situation, the performance of teachers is hampered by many factors, not least of which are absenteeism and poor content knowledge of the subjects they are teaching.

According to the Southern and East African Consortium of Monitoring Educational Quality, teachers struggle with such basic issues as calculating percentages. For example, more than half the teachers tested thought that if the height of a fence is raised from 60cm to 75cm, that represented a 15% increase.

A Human Sciences Research Council study quoted by the NPC’s report found that 20% of teachers are absent on Mondays and Fridays, and absentee rates increase to a third at month-end.

Teachers in schools serving poor African pupils teach an average of 3.5 hours per day compared to 6.5 hours in former white schools, which now serve largely middle and upper-class pupils.

Time lost by poor black pupils over the 12-year period of schooling amounts to three years.

Instead of tackling this chronic underperformance in the majority of our schools, our education officials opted for lower standards
of performance.

The bar between success and failure is set so low that young people do not have to exert themselves to succeed.

How else can one explain setting 30% in three subjects and 40% in another three as the qualification for a high school diploma?

Experience worldwide points to the capacity of children to rise to the expectations set for them in an environment that encourages and rewards effort and innovation. Even in our own country, 600 of the total of more than 26 000 public schools consistently outperform their peers to produce close to 100% pass rates, and higher maths and science outcomes.

The key difference between these 600 high-performing schools and the rest is in the quality of leadership and teaching, with leadership ensuring discipline in the classroom, and in the conduct of both teachers and learners.

So why is it difficult for government to make sure that teachers are in class on time and using appropriate teaching aids, despite President Jacob Zuma’s promises to ensure this?

Unionisation of more than 80% of teachers over the last three decades is a major factor in the underperformance of the school system.

The SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) is the largest union, with more than 240 000 of the approximately 400 000 teachers in the country. It is a Cosatu affiliate and thus part of the governing Tripartite Alliance.

Their attitude to absenteeism is in radical contrast to that of the second-largest teacher union, the National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA (Naptosa). Sadtu’s view is: “We encourage our members to be at school on time but there is time given out (by schools) for us for union work. We do advise them (teachers) to remain on board.”

Naptosa, on the other hand, is quite clear: “Members engaging in union work during school teaching hours is behaviour we totally discourage. The time when the teacher is in front of the class is sacred.”

The conclusion is inescapable that unionism is the major focus for Sadtu, regardless of what impact it might have on learning and teaching. As one of its leaders said: “The day our militancy stops, so will our existence.”

It can only be inferred that the block vote that Sadtu represents is the impediment to the ANC government exercising its role of holding these public servants accountable.

The losers are the 13 million children who leave the school system every 12-year school cycle without the requisite preparation for life in the 21st century.

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