Necessary big stick

2013-02-07 00:00

THIS week, the African National Congress announced that it is considering declaring education an essential service, a move that is opposed by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). If the move succeeds and is legislated by Parliament, this would mean that teachers would not be able to strike and abandon pupils in schools. It would also mean that parents cannot simply choose to close schools because of unrelated service-delivery concerns, as we saw in the Northern Cape last year. But if this succeeds, would it actually improve the state of our education system?

To answer this question requires an assessment of the problems associated with education in this country, which, according to several studies, is among the worst in the world. We also have to consider the sociopolitical contexts in which education takes place in this country. There is no doubt that problems of resource scarcity are a major issue that plagues not just education, but society at large. But research indicates that a lack of resources is not the sole cause of the poor education system. There are many countries that are poorer than South Africa, but which have good education systems. In the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2012-13, South Africa was ranked 132 out of 144 countries. This is lower than Senegal, Rwanda, Namibia, Tanzania and Uganda, to mention just a few. This is despite the fact that these countries are significantly poorer than South Africa. There are also several examples of underresourced schools outperforming better-resourced schools in the country.

This means that while resources are important, quality education can take place in poorly resourced schools. So the charge that some might want to advance that a lack of resources is to blame for South Africa’s poor education system is countered by facts.

In addition to looking at the resources, we have to consider teaching and learning. For a number of years now, President Jacob Zuma has been making the call for teachers to be at school, on time and teaching for at least seven hours a day. But every year in which such a call has been made, and despite the fact that the government has prioritised education, there have been several strikes by teachers. These strikes, regardless of the legitimacy of the issues they seek to highlight, have dire effects on the pupils. Studies by SACMEQ in 2007 and the Human Sciences Research Council in 2010 found that averages of 20 to 24 days of teaching per teacher were lost due to strikes and leave. In his article “Education in SA: a tale of two systems” (Politicsweb, August 31, 2012), Nic Spaull states: “Importantly, the above figures do not include time lost where teachers were at school but not teaching scheduled lessons.”

The strike in the Eastern Cape in 2012 , for example, lasted about three weeks. This is in addition to other strikes in different parts of the country. When these strikes are over and the issues are resolved, the damage cannot be undone.

This is why we are seeing a worrying growing demand for private schools in the country.

Declaring education an essential service will not, by itself, solve all the problems of education in the country, but it will significantly improve the situation by making it very difficult for teachers to go on strike whenever they feel like it.

The response by Sadtu that education is not a matter of life and death, and therefore does not qualify as an essential service, is worrying. The future of our children is critical for the life and death of our country. As an academic, I have witnessed the crippling long-term effects of a poor education system. Students often struggle at universities because they are ill-prepared. This contributes towards the high dropout and exclusion rates at South African universities. Many universities now scramble to develop programmes aimed at assisting students with their studies. Often these programmes are aimed at providing services over and above the traditional academic programmes that universities offer. These, in turn, cost more money to implement, which then affects fees.

In some countries, such as China and France, depending on the grade, an average school day is nine hours. In South Africa, teachers are being asked to be in class for seven hours a day. Despite this, it is not uncommon to hear of pupils being released from school because of teachers attending meetings or because it is payday. Add the length and the number of holidays in an academic year, and it becomes clear why our children are receiving poor education compared with other countries.

As a parent and citizen of this country, I support the declaration of education as an essential service. It would move this country towards finding a permanent solution to the crisis. But such a declaration has to be founded on a pact that teachers must teach and the government must provide the resources and an environment suitable for quality education to take place. This includes taking real steps towards minimising violence in schools and engaging with communities on the need to protect and support their schools.

• Sanele Nene is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

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