There is a crisis, minister

There are ways in which teachers can compensate for government’s incompetence. (John McCann, M&G)

There are ways in which teachers can compensate for government’s incompetence. (John McCann, M&G)

It was with great relief that I read this past week that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga does not believe South African education is in crisis. "Phew!" I thought. "That's a load off my mind."

Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to view the situation in Limpopo, where thousands of grade 10 pupils had already started their exams before receiving their textbooks, as anything less than a tragedy and a crisis, even though the minister has no difficulty seeing it as a mere kerfuffle.
Frankly, I am a little jealous.

Likewise, the "kerftastrophe" surrounding teachers' posts in the Eastern Cape, which has led to many schools — often the poorest — being understaffed for months, has made unease crease my worried brow. So it is good to know that cooler heads have taken charge.

Earlier this year I wrote in the Mail & Guardian about how the unequal allocation of resources in education reinforced the same disparities we suffered through under apartheid. When there are shortages, it is almost inevitable that the poorest schools, which are already lacking in assets, will be the least able to deal with them.

The article I wrote centred on the lack of psychological services in schools. It now seems I should have cast my net more widely.

Acute failures

These governmental failures are so acute and have persisted for so long that a veritable tasting plate of South African non-governmental organisations have felt the need to sue the basic education department for its lack of service delivery.

In response to this, Motshekga said that she would have preferred if the lawsuits had not taken place ("Talk to us instead, says minister", M&G, June 22). This struck me as being akin to the base commander at Pearl Harbour deciding to reprimand anyone who reported seeing enemy aircraft. The lawsuits are a symptom, minister, not a cause.

But there are two sides to education: the department and the schools; management and labour; the ivory tower and the chalkface.

Fixing the problems in the government is not within my purview. It is a job for politicians, unions, the voting public and, it seems now, the courts.

But schools are something I do know about. I was recently at a presentation for the Partners for Possibility initiative and, although I am not affiliated to it, I was impressed by what I saw. The initiative pairs a businessperson with a school principal and the two then work together to improve their school and get their community of parents involved in helping out.

This is the kind of programme that can be used to improve pupils' education without waiting for the government to allocate more resources — and it seems to me to be extremely worthwhile.

Doing it by themselves

One of the things that struck me was a principal at the presentation stating that he felt that the basic education department was simply not up to the task of fixing education and the schools were therefore going to have to do it themselves.

This may be frustrating, disappointing, even depressing. But it may also be the only option. We need to acknowledge that the unit of change in South African education is the teacher. We need to return to the notion that teachers are skilled professionals who are vitally important for a healthy society and that they are going to have to do much of the work themselves.

Hopefully, the government will get on board at some point. Until then, however, our nation's educators are going to have to work the bilge pumps by hand and we all need to give them the respect their professionalism warrants.

But the coin of professionalism has another side: consequence. If we, as a nation, are truly going to raise teachers up to the level of respect they deserve, then teachers themselves will need to earn that respect by maintaining high standards.

Good teachers need to be rewarded and valued. Bad teachers need to be given a chance for training and development. But if that does not work, then those teachers need to be given the freedom to explore other employment opportunities — right after we fire their arses.

Everyone responds to incentives. Good teachers work harder when they know their effort is valued and bad teachers are less bad when they know they are likely to be punished.

Pathetic pay

When I was a teacher in 2006, I was paid about R7 000 a month, which is pathetic for a profession that holds our nation's future in its hands.

Since then, we have had several teaching strikes that forced the government to raise salaries to more rational levels. So I am acutely aware of the vital role that unions play in defending teachers' right to decent wages and good working conditions.

But if those unions thwart attempts to remove teachers who are endangering their students' education, they have truly lost their way and become more a part of the problem than the solution.

It may seem crazy to expect our overburdened teachers to have to shoulder yet more responsibility, but in the areas that are racked by crises I do not believe we have any choice. Political and legal processes simply take too long; 2012 is halfway and some textbooks still have not arrived.

And waiting for our basic education minister to work out what a crisis looks like is not how we are going to fix South African education.

Andrew Verrijdt is an educational psychologist


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