Making quality count

2008-04-02 00:00

Fourteen years after liberation from apartheid, South Africa’s schools should by now have been transformed into forces of change and opportunity. Instead, our schools are, for the most part, scenes of neglect, lethargy and often violence.

A number of resources-related reasons have been cited for the desperately poor standard of education, and indeed these problems persist within schools that lack proper classrooms and teaching aids — let alone luxuries such as swimming pools and recreational facilities. There is no doubt that these are issues which need to be dealt with.

But the example of a handful of schools that have triumphed despite abysmal circumstances should make it clear that the real cause of the problem is not, at core, one of resources, but rather of approach.

A situation has developed in the education system where the needs and interests of the true professionals among the teaching body have become swept away by the demands of job-sitters, who have created a climate where excellence goes virtually unnoticed and mediocrity dominates. Whereas the professional corps has a genuine commitment to teaching well and teachers do the best that they can for their pupils, the job-sitters are driven by self-interest. This situation has arisen for a number of reasons. The first is that the political activism that characterised trade union activity during apartheid continues today, with the voices of teachers’ unions protecting their own interests drowning out the voices of the children and parents who receive an inferior service from the members of these unions.

In addition to this, the ruling party remains beholden to trade unions in significant ways. The government has allowed these political considerations to take priority over the needs of our children and, when implementing necessary changes, all too often succumbs to union pressure.

Under these circumstances, certain negative patterns have emerged. There is strong resistance to performance evaluation for teachers — and in particular to the establishment of any link between performance and salary. Very little action is taken against non-performing teachers. Over the past three years, 52 schools have achieved a pass rate of less than five percent. Not one of these school principals has been fired; some have simply been moved on to other schools. Despite regular reports of classes being abandoned, teachers being absent from school or arriving drunk, only a tiny handful of teachers have been disciplined for non-performance.

There is a continuing failure on the part of many schools to fulfil the basic curriculum requirements. South Africa’s worst-performing schools cover only about 50% of the curriculum in any given year, largely because the teachers do not spend enough time in the classroom. Even when the curriculum is covered, children very often do not understand what they have been taught. Matric results reflect this situation every year, and the downward trend in these results indicates a worsening of this problem.

Some fundamental changes must be made to the process of recruiting and appointing teachers, as well as to the way that the curriculum and the education system are structured. This is not an argument in support of non-expenditure on school facilities and resources — it is critical that all schools have sufficient classrooms, libraries and sports grounds. But resources are not enough on their own to provide our children with a good standard of education.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has developed a range of proposals aimed at ensuring that teachers are rewarded appropriately for their performance, according to meaningful criteria, so that school funding goes not only to the schools which need it most, but in particular, to the schools that deserve it most.

Funding must be directed at schools which produce results, and particularly schools which produce results despite trying circumstances. A poverty-related funding index already exists, which places schools into seven different income quintiles.

In addition, however, the DA proposes a rating system based on the school’s performance in national evaluations at grades 3, 7 and 12. These are required in order to get a clearer idea of the problems within the education system. These exams can also be usefully applied for the purpose of determining school funding, which will partly be based on the performance of a school’s pupils at the applicable levels.

This rating system will be used to give a financial boost to schools in areas where parents cannot afford top-up fees, and at the same time will help ensure that additional money is allocated to schools which will apply it constructively to improve performance.

A professional body of teachers must be subject to a system of individual performance review. In the ideal circumstances this should be dealt with by the school itself. However, many schools are so dysfunctional that a self-conducted performance evaluation cannot possibly produce a result that is a true reflection of the reality. We, therefore, propose that schools be separated into two categories for the purposes of performance evaluation.

All secondary schools which achieved a matric pass rate of less than 60% and all primary schools which reached less than the predetermined level of achievement in the DA’s proposed Grade 7 national exams should be subjected to external review by the Education Department. The remaining schools will be required to develop and implement their own performance review systems. The Department of Education should not impose a system, but should issue guidelines, provide deadlines and ensure that the outcomes are made available.

However, if schools and teachers are to be evaluated on their performance, certain external factors that currently compromise performance will need to be changed.

Firstly, if a principal’s ability to employ the best available candidate for a given post is compromised by outside factors, then he or she cannot be held responsible for the poor performance of staff. In well-run schools, the principal must have the absolute right to hire and fire staff, providing that the necessary performance evaluation processes and applicable labour laws are followed. This will require scrapping of legislation allowing provincial education departments to interfere.

Secondly, to be able to better control quality, principals need to have more control over admissions and expulsions. It is extremely difficult for schools to expel disruptive pupils. The department needs to find ways, including dedicated schools for disruptive pupils, to remove this enormous burden on schools.

Finally, management training with a particular focus on school management must become a legal requirement for any principal. Teachers also need to be given better support and information by, for example, turning good schools into “centres of excellence” which other schools can use as sources of assistance and advice.

• George Boinamo and Desiree van der Walt are Democratic Alliance MPs and the party’s spokesperson and deputy spokesperson on education.

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