Union hopes for education for all

Posted on March 27, 2011


Education in South Africa, with few exceptions, is in a shambles and in dire need of major repair. That much was made clear in the mass demonstration outside parliament this week by thousands of school students supported by parents, teachers and the teacher unions. They were calling for equal, quality education for all.

A few days earlier, the fact that near anarchy prevails in some sections the education system was highlighted by the actions of the Soweto branch of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), the largest teacher union in the country, and by the reaction of the Congress of SA Students (Cosas).

Teachers walked off the job to support one of their number who was in court charged with the physical abuse of a student. This precipitated the usual howls on talkack radio about the need for corporal punishment, with Cosas responding that students should “fight fire with fire” and strike back when they were hit.

The shenanigans in Soweto and the 20 000-strong demonstration before parliament underlined the two directions to the future that now confront the schooling system: on the one hand, an example of a promising route to quality — and relatively equal — education; on the other, a glimpse of the horror and hazards if things do not come right.

United action involving students, parents, teachers and their unions, along with clarity of vision about what constitutes quality education, is the expressed aim of all those who marched on parliament. Unfortunately, such principles — and policies in line with them — have all too often been observed in the breach, something the unions acknowledge.

If these policies continue to be ignored and if the schools, the state and the unions do not act, in concert with communities, to correct the myriad faults that exist, even worse decay could set in. In this the unions have a critical role to play and they cannot afford to shirk their responsibilities.

As several senior unionists readily admit, this means being prepared to take a hard line with those elements who use union power corruptly, turning worker collectives into something resembling a gang running a protection racket. It also means the state taking responsibility for the squandering of funds and for much of the administrative disaster that has crippled large areas of the system.

Noting that South Africa spends 6 per cent of its GDP on education, Sadtu general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke asked this week: “Are we investing in political administration or in education?”

It is a pertinent question at a time of ongoing economic crisis, with continuing massive unemployment; a time when children and their education are even more vulnerable, along with teacher training and further education for both teachers and other adults, let alone that vital Cinderella area of pre-school learning.

However, this is a situation that is not unique to South Africa, a fact highlighted on Tuesday by Susan Hopgood, president of the global educators’ union, Education International (EI). Founded in 1993 EI now represents, in round figures, 30 million “education personnel” in 171 countries who are members of 396 affiliated unions.

She pointed out that there are now 76 million children who do not go to school at all or have no schools to go to. And she noted that, on current estimates, the much touted Millennium Development Goal of education for all by 2015, will fall short by 56 million children who will still not go to school.

Hopgood and the EI executive board, drawn from unions in 23 countries, met in Cape Town this week to finalise details for the EI world congress that is scheduled to be held in the city from July 22 to July 26. This promises to be much more than a talk shop, with EI general secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, stating that the organisation plans to discuss and develop a “comprehensive education policy”.

And while the rod wielding disciplinarians of domestic pedagogy may continue to claim local headlines, they are unlikely to feature prominently in the EI debates. Their behaviour is a problem that could be — and should be — speedily dealt with, even before July.

The law — supported by the teacher unions and outlined in the Education Act of 1996 — is clear although, like health and safety rules and a multitude of other sound legislation, it has not been adequately enforced. Educators also tend to agree that quality education — by whatever definition — does not require corporal punishment, a system the Roman scholar Quintillian noted more than 2 000 years ago was “fit only for slaves”.

Yet, 16 years after level playing fields were declared, the distortions of apartheid remain, epitomised in our grossly unequal schooling system and in the beating of students. National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) general secretary Henry Hendricks underlined this when he noted at the EI press conference this week: “We still have tens of thousands of unqualified teachers”.

Once again, this is something that is not unique to South Africa, with several countries lowering entry standards for teachers, although none apparently as low as those encouraged under the Bantu Education system of apartheid. Under that system, men and women with barely two years of generally poor secondary schooling could qualify as teachers — and many remain in the system.

There are other countries where teachers are recruited only from the highest level academic performers, their training subsidised and their pay set at the level of other graduates. The result may be elitist and therefore fail in terms of egalitarian principles.

As Van Leeuwen says: “No country has a monopoly on educational excellence. We have much to learn from one another.”

South Africa has a lot to learn and a long way to go to rank with the best, but perhaps an even longer way to fall to conditions that apply in several other countries. We still have children taught under trees, but not on open rooftops to avoid the gunfire of warring gangs and police in the streets below. That applies, for example, in Karachi in Pakistan.