Teaching jobs to be cut again

A new government curriculum plan is likely to leave provinces with less money to spend on teachers, writes Andy Duffy

The government is planning to force provinces to spend a hefty slice of their education budgets on initiatives such as the new school curriculum - a move likely to trigger more retrenchments of teachers.

The national Department of Education also revealed this week that the state employs 50 000 more teachers now than it did in 1994. Their wage bill alone is R4-billion a year.

A Department of Education task team has now decided initiatives such as Curriculum 2005 and school upgrading must not be left in the provinces’ hands.

The team, due to report at the end of this month, is expected to call on government to earmark a chunk of the provinces’ existing education budgets for such national projects. That cash will be recalled if the provinces fail to spend it as directed.

Such constraints will leave the provinces little option but to cut teaching jobs. Most of their education spending goes on staff costs, leaving virtually nothing for national projects. Around R3-billion is needed over the next seven years to implement the new curriculum. The upgrading cost is estimated at R500-million a year for the next 10 years (at 1997 prices).

National education deputy director general Ihron Rensburg says talks are underway on a national retrenchment strategy to run in parallel with the new funding plans. “Clearly with the personnel bill being a serious threat to any other transformation or development initiatives it (forced retrenchments) is being brought more into focus,” Rensburg said.

The plans are based on a mechanism provided for in the Constitution, but nevertheless represent a severe infringement of provinces’ autonomy.

Officials believe that is a price worth paying if Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu’s transformation drive is to get beyond first gear. He has already been forced to scale back the introduction of the new curriculum, after an investigation by Rensburg found the provinces were incapable of implementing it.

The department’s acting director general, Trevor Coombe, says earmarking funds will “safeguard expenditure for programmes considered of such national importance that they must not be subject to the whims of provincial government”.

The department stressed that the provincial education chiefs are being consulted in drawing up the funding plans.

The task team’s work is also part of a wider effort by the Ministry of Finance and Department of State Expenditure to introduce longer term budget planning. Each ministry has been asked to identify elements that could be funded through the earmarked cash - “conditional grants”.

But the recommendations nevertheless represent a break with the stance the Education Ministry took just last month, after the provinces went to the Finance Ministry to plead for more money. At that stage, Bengu’s office said it was “out of the loop” on provincial funding.

Rensburg says the total number of teachers employed now stands at 410 000, against 360 000 in 1994. “A number of provinces rushed ahead to create new posts in total absence of a national strategy,” he adds. “[That is] part of the explanation of why we’re sitting with such a huge bill.”

Bengu also holds the provinces responsible for the disastrous outcome of last year’s voluntary severance programme. The programme was supposed to redress imbalances in teaching resources between schools and provinces. Instead, mismanagement on the ground led to thousands of the state’s most experienced teachers taking seven-figure pay-offs to stop work.

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