Literacy guru resigns

Questions are being asked about the government’s second attempt at a mass literacy campaign after world-renowned adult education expert John Aitchison resigned this week.

The reasons for his departure centre on his conviction that the education department is taking the new R6,1-billion campaign down the same road that led to the near-total failure of the previous campaign.

South Africa has 9,6-million adult illiterate people. Of these, 4,7-million have never been to school and are considered totally illiterate; another 4,9-million dropped out of school before grade seven and are termed functionally illiterate.
The campaign is intended to reach the first group of 4,7-million, to train and employ 80 000 tutors, and to run from 2008 to 2012.

Central to the campaign are two documents. The first is the detailed report of the ministerial committee appointed by Education Minister Naledi Pandor in 2005; the Cabinet approved this report in November last year. In the course of its research, the committee studied countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, India and New Zealand which have successful mass literacy campaigns. The report reflects what elements of these would work in the South African context.

The second is the comprehensive, 177-page operational plan that the Cabinet requested, and that it approved in August this year.

Aitchison, a professor in the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Adult Education, was on the ministerial committee and wrote the operational plan.

He was seconded to the education department this year specifically to assist with the gear-up towards next year’s intended implementation.

Seconded also were two other committee members—Veronica McKay, head of Unisa’s Abet (adult basic education and training) Institute, and Obert Maghuve, director of education at the South African National Council for the Blind (the operational plan makes specific provisions to cater for blind and partially sighted adults).

Both the committee report and the operational plan are explicit about how the new campaign is to avoid the two main problems that bedevilled the government’s first attempt at such a campaign—the South African National Literacy Initiative (Sanli), launched in 2000 by then education minister Kader Asmal.

The two problems were that Sanli was seriously underfunded and that operational control was located entirely within a small education department directorate almost entirely lacking the necessary expertise. At a late stage McKay’s Unisa unit teamed up with Sanli, aided by funding from Britain’s department for international development.

The Unisa intervention achieved a measure of success, reaching more than 300 000 adult learners. But as Aitchison has put it, ‘it was already too late”: with international donors losing interest and Sanli immoveably housed within the education department, it ‘slowly festered into insignificance”.

Cabinet’s approval of R6,1-billion for the new campaign solves the first problem. The second is addressed in both the ministerial report and the operational plan. In essence, it vests overall operating responsibility in an inter-ministerial governance committee, supported by an amply staffed national literacy secretariat drawing on a range of skills necessary for a campaign on this scale.

But problems began as soon as the seconded ministerial committee members joined the education department this year. Both Aitchison and Maghuve told the Mail & Guardian that some departmental staff indicated their intention to obstruct their work on the gear-up at even the most basic levels, such as refusing them office space and failing to supply essential equipment such a computers and software.

Aitchinson said he then started seeing signs that relatively junior officials in the department’s Abet directorate appeared to be drawing up their own operational plans, vastly different from those approved by the Cabinet. It was also clear, he said, that the seconded staff were being excluded from such processes.

In particular, the Abet staff formulated a plan that would locate overall control of the campaign within the department—a replay of Sanli, Aitchison oberved, adding that the ministerial committee ‘had expressly warned that the campaign structures and management should not be within the department”.

In July he wrote to Pandor, who immediately convened a meeting with Deputy Minister Enver Surty and Director General Duncan Hindle. The outcome, he told the M&G, was that he and McKay were ‘assured that obstructions would be removed”.

But the problems continued, Aitchison said. His formal submissions requesting equipment and staff were ‘altered ... or ignored or not acted on ... Essentially, [we] were never given the power or authority [we] needed if the campaign was to be geared up to start.”

When he learned that the same junior Abet staff were planning an alternative operating structure lodging its control with themselves, he again wrote to Pandor. That was last month, and he has yet to receive a response, he said.

On Monday this week, he resigned.

Hindle told the M&G that the Cabinet-approved plan ‘is being implemented without deviation”. He said the department’s operational plan was ‘strictly in line with the ministerial committee recommendation that it should be ‘independent’ of government”, and that ‘there appears to be confusion on this matter”.

He added that Pandor had directed that ‘a national secretariat should be established as a separate branch of the department” and that this will be supported by an organisation that will operate independently of the department.

This organisation is the subject of the publication twice this month in the government’s Tender Bulletin of an invitation for bids from service providers ‘to provide project, human resource, procurement and financial management” for the campaign.

According to the tender invitation, the successful bidder will be answerable to ‘a unit” the department has ‘created” which ‘will be responsible for all the necessary preparations for the implementation of the campaign”—precisely what Aitchison was seconded to do.

Overall, Aitchison commented, ‘to mess up a mass literacy campaign once might be considered bad luck, to do it again a mere seven years later suggests serious effort”.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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