Guest Column

Amputating the soul of our children

2013-09-06 11:54

This column was first published in The Daily Maverick.

Jay Naidoo

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union decision to disrupt trial examinations of matric students in KZN is irresponsible and against the wishes of many students. The quest for a democratic, effective public education system lies in the accountability of those managing it. Until the actions of government officials and school management are made transparent the problems will persist.

There comes a time in life when citizens of a nation have to take a stand. I feel that day has come.

I am astounded to hear in Durban this week that South African Democratic Teacher’s Union (Sadtu) leaders have taken a decision to disrupt trial examinations of matric students in KZN. We need to unreservedly condemn this extraordinarily irresponsible decision of picketing Sadtu member’s to blockade entrances to exam distribution centres preventing schools and pupils from accessing exam papers.

The president of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), Collen Malatji rightly declared “We cannot sit back and allow Sadtu to use our members as a bargaining strategy whenever they have problems with the management.” I agree with him.

There are many dedicated hardworking teachers amongst my friends and family who fiercely disagree with this decision. Many of them are strong union members who assert, “This is ridiculous. We have spent months working with pupils especially from impoverished communities to prepare for these exams. They were excited and ready to write. We, as teachers, have not been consulted. And we do not agree with this decision as it jeopardizes the futures of our children. We are pawns in a political game we are not part of.”

Almost two decades into democracy our education system remains dysfunctional. Millions of our children whose futures are sabotaged are from the poorest of households. They are from families of working people struggling to eke out an existence. Many parents spend a huge part of their incomes covering transport and other costs to get their children to school. They pin their hopes on their children having a better life because they will have more skills and can get decent work.

But statistics paint a different reality. We live in a country where the official unemployment rate (those actively seeking work) is 25%, or over 7-million people, while the broader rate of unemployment is more than a third of our population.

Of even greater concern is the dropout rate. Nearly 60% of our children who started school in 2001 had either dropped out or failed matric. This has happened on our watch.

Our education minister Motshekga’s maths and science task team reports that “Forty-three percent of South African grade five learners failed to reach the lowest international benchmark, in contrast to 5% of grade four learners internationally. This means that they have not yet mastered the basic reading skills required to access and retrieve information for reading comprehension purposes.”

Time is running out for us.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report ranked South Africa in math and science education as second last in the world, ahead of Yemen. Yet in 2012/2013 we will spend an estimated R234-billion on education. At 21% of our budget it is our biggest line item. The WEF has ranked the quality of South Africa’s state education 133 out of 142 countries in its World Competitiveness Report and most of our students perform badly in standardized global tests against South Africa’s peers and other African countries. This is an indictment.

I do not believe that throwing more money at the problem will solve our crisis of education. We need to agree an accountability framework built from the ground up and enforced by the state as an employer in partnership with national and local stakeholders. We need the budgets allocated to schools to be simplified so that parents, students, teachers and community leaders all know how much money is budgeted for teacher salaries, purchase of textbooks, stationary, desks and infrastructure.

We need to harness technology that makes this information transparent. We need to identify all those who sit in the line of authority making these decisions, make available their contact details and make them account for all expenditures. This is public money collected from us as citizens, not a private slush fund for public officials and representatives.

We need to follow the money and measure outcomes from attendance and performance of principals and teachers, reports of sexual or physical abuse, infrastructure expenses on everything from toilets to libraries and all prescribed norms and standards. We need these accessible and public on the Internet so communities are able to compare performance against each other. Mobile platforms provide a pervasive technological platform to enable this.

The overriding priority of our education system is our children, and we need to agree on this. Any actions from any stakeholder threatening these rights, especially during critical periods such as examination time, should be opposed. These were the leadership commitments made in the talks that led to the formation of Sadtu. I was there as the convener; this is what was resolved when Mandela officially launched the union 6 October 1990.

I cannot understand why today the same union takes actions that endanger the future generations’ hopes and aspirations. I do know that the majority of South Africans want school governance and discipline enforced. And that starts and ends with school principals, who are the direct representatives of the employer – the state. They should be barred from joining unions.

As citizens we want any sexual relations between teachers and pupils subject to summary dismissal and be criminally prosecutable. There is a growing demand that we insist all children of public service employees and public representatives should attend public schools. This will result in the most immediate improvement in school performance. Too many of our political elites and state officials have opted out of the public delivery system. Frankly, they don’t care that the poorest in our country suffer.

Our country cries out for leadership from those who we have elected. Take a stand now. Strengthen the inspectorates who are responsible for enforcing the constitutional guarantees of quality education for our children. Performance and effective teaching must be brought into the heart of our education system.

We need a zero tolerance to education failure from all of us as parents, students, communities, teachers, media and especially government. We need to take a stand against those who want to reduce our country to mediocrity.

More from The Daily Maverick:
- South Africa, a country of chequebook justice
- When a joke is not a joke

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