School disruptions drop to practically nothing - official

Johannesburg - The number of disruptions in schools before the country achieved democracy has dropped to practically nothing 20 years later, a Gauteng education department official said on Monday. 

The provincial department's deputy director general for strategic planning Albert Chanee said that in 1993, there were 16 000 disruptions in schools and at least 11 million learner days were lost.

Forty percent of these were in Gauteng. 

This meant that over that year, collectively in reference to each pupil in the country, 11 million school days were lost. For example, if there was a disruption of one day at a school with 500 pupils, 500 learner days were lost.

"Now, virtually no learner days are lost," he told News24.

However, Chanee emphasised that these disruptions were specifically related to educational policy issues, and were not related to service delivery protests.

"Most student action is on weekends and other than formal strikes, and action involving unions, there have been no unplanned and illegal work stoppages in at least the last four years," he told News24.

He said the education system had been turned around in the last 20 years, "warts and all".

"This was accomplished by stabilising the policies and the resources, and by being pro-poor and improving on accountability," Chanee said. 

"There is a broader campaign over the last 20 years, specifically about improving quality teaching. Collectively, as the productivity improves, the initial demands [that lead to disruptions] decrease."

Speaking earlier at the launch of a review commissioned by the provincial department called "Twenty years of education transformation in Gauteng 1994-2014: An independent review", in Johannesburg, Chanee said an internal process was started in 2013 to review 20 years of education in Gauteng.

"There was a need to document what happened in the province that was not done internally," he said.

He said the majority of research on education looked at things at a "symptomatic level".

"We want to start to get academics to look at the problems and not the symptoms. What we see is an opportunity for academics to go into schools and work at a micro level," he said.

"We can no longer at this level manage the education system based on symptoms. We want to use this kind of a platform to get a better sense of what is happening at a mechanical level to intervene in a successful way."

School protests

Former Gauteng education MEC Mary Metcalfe touched on the current nature of school protests.

"In my recollection the huge number of protests around '94 was to be celebrated - they were an expression of the expectation that things will change," Metcalfe, who is also a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, said.

"Protests now have to do with broader frustrations of the unchanging nature of power relations."

She said these "power relations" were not only about race, but class as well.

Metcalfe said the process of transforming education was something that would never reach its end.

"In 1994, we all had an idealistic notion that it [transformation] would be much quicker - but it is never going to be done," she said.

"There are real challenges we will be facing for a long time in terms of the context of inequality. It is a constant uphill battle, where the children of the poor and marginalised can have the same education as the wealthy.

"It is a moving target."                             

Metcalfe said one of the reasons why transformation would never end was also because the form of education would always change the debate around it.

Examples of the debates included the role of information technology, and schools as a "public good" and the role of privatisation as a way of undermining that public good.

Metcalfe praised the book, but also pointed out several things the various reports in the book did not mention.

"What it misses is the relationship between the whole and part. Sometimes they don't say what it means for the whole. How does Gauteng help us to understand things nationally?" she asked.

"The challenge is to understand what we can learn in Gauteng and what are the lessons that can be replicated elsewhere.

"I don't think that there was enough analysis of what was distinctive of Gauteng - how is it different?  If this review was commissioned by the Western Cape, it would be different. Why? We need to reflect on that."

She said the review did not also look at the way Gauteng had more access to resources.

"The reason we were able to move ahead so quickly after '94 was because of the abundance of people with legal experience."

She said because Gauteng had easy access to resources, "we have a disproportionate influence on national policy". 

She also said there was not enough emphasis put on the home languages of pupils, and referred to a report that found that 50% of children in the foundation phase were being taught in a language that they did not use at home.

Metcalfe did however praise the Gauteng education department for commissioning a "genuine scholarly review".

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