Education department faces public grilling

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) will consider issuing the national Department of Education (DoE) with a subpoena if it does not present the commission with a written submission in a month.

This follows the SAHRC’s public hearings on the right to basic education, held earlier this month, where representatives from the DoE made verbal presentations. Speaking to the Teacher a week after the hearings were held, Kaya Zweni, head of the SAHRC’s legal department, said he found it “surprising” that the SAHRC had still not received a formal, written submission from the department.

He believes the reasons for the tardiness are: “Firstly, the DoE seems not to respect the commission and the public. Secondly, it’s an acknowledgement that it has failed to discharge its [constitutional] duty” to provide the right to basic education.

While DoE spokesperson Tommy Makhode said that the SAHRC would soon receive its submission, it had still not been sent by the time the Teacher went to press. The SAHRC was also awaiting submissions from six provincial education departments. Only Gauteng, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape provided either written or oral submissions.

But Zweni said that he was “very pleased with the response from other [education] stakeholders”, with more than 30 organisations and individuals making both oral and written submissions to the SAHRC.

The public hearings were convened by the SAHRC to “explore the meaning of the right to basic education and the context within which it is implemented in the country”.

Voice after voice expressed the view that the DoE was failing to provide quality education, with the poor in particular receiving an education that prepares them for little besides unemployment.

As Graeme Bloch, education policy analyst for the Development Bank of South Africa, put it: “As much as we have a second economy, we have a second education system. It reinforces the fact that these learners are trapped in a second economy.”

Particularly scathing was Jonathon Jansen, who made a submission as a “democratic citizen” (rather than in his capacity as the dean of education at the University of Pretoria).

Said Jansen: “There exists neither the capacity nor the humility in the national education system to concede and deliver on the deep inequalities in the provision of basic education in our country.”

Dismissing the significance of high enrolment figures, Jansen argued that simply being at school is not the point. The real issue is “what exactly learners have access to, under what conditions, for how long, for whom and at what cost”.

Salim Vally, from the Wits Education Policy Unit, also drew attention to the “push-out rate” from schools, which results in only about 50% of those who start Grade 1 going all the way to matric.

Said Vally: “How is it possible to label our [education] system as normal when it is so exceptional for someone to succeed?”

Community activists, parents and learners painted a grim picture of exactly how bad education can be in South Africa. Issues raised included poorly trained and uncommitted teachers; unsafe school buildings; struggles with transport; and widespread sexual harassment of learners.

Jansen was one of several who emphasised the imbalance between the pressure put on teachers to deliver a quality education and the support they receive.

“The more you press people without support, the more they are likely to take short cuts, duck out of the system, and so on.”

The costs of education were also repeatedly raised. A submission made by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies quoted a report from the Micro Finance Regulatory Council that showed that “the poor borrow some R2,7-billion a year to spend on education”. It also pointed out that “less than 5% of learners…currently have exemptions from school fees”.

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