New call to prioritise teaching
Teaching should be declared an essential public service at all levels," the science and technology department's recent ministerial review recommends.
This is the most exciting of the proposals in the review, which surveys the "science, technology and innovation landscape in South Africa". The review was released for public comment this month by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor (dst.gov.za).
"Teaching at all levels" must include basic education as well as higher education and training.
This recommendation in the review, number 15, should also be read with the one it follows: "In order to meet the human resource development requirements of a knowledge economy, a planned, concerted, well-resourced and sustained programme of action in all areas of human capital development should be undertaken by all the relevant policy-makers and performers."
The Democratic Alliance has frequently called for changes in the status of the key teaching sector. International consensus has begun to shift and the International Labour Organisation has recommended a "minimum-service profession" approach. In other words, during strikes at least a core of minimum staff would continue to provide public services of fundamental importance.
It is an approach that seeks to balance the right to strike with the right to education and one that recognises the importance of education. The call is for teaching to become, at the very least, a minimum-service profession or, given the crisis conditions in the sector, for it to be declared an essential service until the crisis is resolved. The DA has called for a parliamentary debate on the issue.
The institutionalisation of teaching as either a minimum or an essential service would serve to build the human capital we so sorely require to adopt new technologies and move South Africa into an era of dynamic economic growth.
The declaration of teaching as a minimum service would also dissipate the destructive power concentrated in the hands of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu). If it was declared an essential service, it would break the union's stranglehold on the sector entirely.
The evidence is clear that, in fact, this is what is required to ensure that education is given the priority it deserves. The union might well constitute the fundamental obstacle to building a knowledge economy in South Africa.
Sadtu appears to believe that it is its right to intimidate teachers into staying away from work at the slightest whim. To take only the latest example, the go-slow it called in the Eastern Cape in the first school term of this year once again cost pupils dearly and showed, as always, that it favours its own political agenda over the national interest.
South Africa's education crisis includes shockingly low levels of achievement in maths and science. As a recent report from the Centre for Development and Enterprise stated: "The South African schooling system continues to produce far fewer passes in maths and science than the country's economy requires."
Improving quality output
Because the number of children of school-going age is not growing significantly, South Africa will have to meet its increasing need for human capital by concentrating "on improving the quality of output from a pool that will not get much bigger than it is today", the report states.
It follows that improving maths and science scores among all pupils in South Africa should be declared a national priority, from basic education right through to the further education and training colleges.
Why is it so important? Human capital, the stock of skills, education, competency and other productivity-enhancing characteristics embedded in labour, comprises the central determinant of economic growth.
Investment in human capital provides a sustainable mechanism of addressing some of the persistent socioeconomic inequalities in South Africa — inequalities that are, at least in part, the consequence of a slowing rate of accumulation of human capital, which has not kept pace with skills-based technological change.
If inequality is to be reversed, teaching excellence — especially in maths and science — must be ferociously pursued. Maths and science education provides the skills that steadily contribute to human capital formation, a sentiment reflected in government's national development plan.
The relationship between human capital and technological progress, which is the mandate of the department of science and technology, appears to operate through at least three channels.
The first and probably most important factor underpinning technological progress is the access to education of the most talented individuals in society. Many of these individuals continue to be overlooked because they have negligible access to a good education.
Second, the human capital of the workforce may influence the pace of technological change. An example is when some technologies are not profitable because the workforce itself lacks the requisite skills.
Third, the composition of human capital potentially affects the direction of technological progress. South Africa's technological progress, and by implication our economic growth, therefore depends on reversing the decline in our education quality.
Yet Sadtu is keeping education in South Africa in bondage. Making teaching at least a minimum service will play a profound role in reversing the union's ability to do so.
It will also play a catalytic role in building the human capital that is a fundamental cornerstone to harnessing new technologies and growing a knowledge economy.
Junita Kloppers-Lourens, MP, is the Democratic Alliance's spokesperson on science and technology