Damning rural schools report suppressed

A report held back by the basic education department shows rampant cronyism, shockingly bad sanitation, union interference and teacher provision processes that ignore policy.

The National Education Evalu­ation and Development Unit (Needu) report contains data from department visits to 99 monograde schools and 120 multigrade schools in 34 districts in all provinces in the first half of the 2013 school year.

It was leaked to the Mail & Guardian this week by a source who said the department “actively prevented the report from being released because of how damning it is”.

Among other problems the report raises a red flag about how provinces hire teachers and the dangerous, unbalanced ratio of teacher salary expenditure to other resources.

Post-provisioning is the process in which provinces commit to filling a certain number of teacher posts each year. But, because some provinces such as the Eastern Cape haven’t followed the right process, it has resulted in thousands of vacant posts and “double-parked” (excess) teachers at others.

The process requires that unions and other organisations are consulted, but the problems arising from allowing “political horse-trading to dominate the process are apparent in the inability of most provinces to formulate an affordable post establishment”, the report says.

Pressure by unions
It says some provinces start the process by wanting to keep the total number of teachers constant and this was primarily because of “pressure by unions”. This meant that teachers who became redundant at some schools because of decreasing pupil numbers refused to be moved to schools that needed them, and the unions fully supported them.

The unit was established in 2009 to investigate the quality of school leadership, teaching and learning between 2012 and 2014. The previous Needu report, which was released to the public in 2013, was about teaching and learning in the foundation phase in 2012.

The report leaked to the M&G this week is titled Needu National Report 2013: Teaching and Learning in Rural Primary Schools.

The Eastern Cape has battled with the problem of excess teachers for more than a decade. The report says that, at the start of 2014, there were “9 144 teachers in addition … and, if all vacant posts were to be filled by these teachers, there would still be 3 905 in excess”.

In the Grahamstown district of the Eastern Cape, the district director told the unit’s evaluators that “much of his time … is taken up by negotiations with unions and other interested parties on this issue”.

“He said that the current process prioritises finding places for existing teachers at the expense of finding the most appropriate candidate for the job.”

The source said several education stakeholders already had copies of the report, and some had speculated that one reason it had not been made public was that it showed the dangerous extent of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union’s (Sadtu) political influence in provincial departments. “Their influence is widely known but never before has it been so clearly stated in one of the department’s own documents,” the source said.

When asked to comment Sadtu – the biggest teacher union with about 240 000 members – said whatever is said in the report needs to be contextualised.

“The Eastern Cape had leadership problems … the situation was not normal and no one stakeholder can carry the blame,” General Secretary Mugwena Maluleke told the M&G.

He said the post-provisioning process requires that parties including unions put the interest of pupils and teachers at the centre and ultimately lead to the redeployment of excess teachers. “All unions are involved in the process of redeployment as observers to ensure that the agreed upon redeployment process is fair to all teachers and pupils,” he said.

“It will be extremely wrong to implicate Sadtu as the cause of problems in the process because all unions are consulted. What if those blaming Sadtu are using our union as a scapegoat? What if the department officials are lacking the professional capability to take decisions and are using Sadtu to hide their incapacity?

The report also says the provinces are not meeting the optimal ratio between expenditure on teacher salaries and expenditure on elements such as infrastructure. According to the basic education department, the optimal ratio is 80:20, but the report found that the provinces have been moving further and further away from that.

One table shows that, in Limpopo for example, the ratio of personnel to nonpersonnel expenditure was 86:14 in the 2010-2011 financial year. By 2012-2013, it was 93:7.

In an interview with the evaluators, a district director gave a damning example of the effects of an unbalanced ratio. He directs a district serving rural schools in a former homeland. He said the district “had more than 200 teachers in excess but no funds for school maintenance”.

Provinces such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape “have lost control” of the post-provisioning process, and it “cannot continue to be skewed to favour powerfully organised interest groups”, the report says.

But, the report states, the larger problem that caused the post-provisioning crisis and the unbalanced expenditure ratio “is that most provinces do not follow any policy at all”. This has resulted in seven provinces with an “unaffordable post establishment because they start with the number of teachers” and assume that this number should not change.

Jobs for pals
In a damning statement on cronyism in the education sector, the report states that “in many schools, teachers with poor subject knowledge receive little help from school leaders, whose own knowledge resources are little stronger, [and] departmental heads and principals, in turn, are promoted to positions in circuits, districts and provinces without necessarily exhibiting superior subject knowledge, pedagogical skills or management capacity”.

Evaluators heard complaints about this in most of the districts visited.

One “very senior official in the Limpopo education department” told evaluators that he regularly got “mandates” from high up. He said: “You are told to appoint so-and-so regardless of the person’s skills and experience, and, if you challenge this, you become a black sheep. Once you have mandates, you compromise on quality. [We are] sitting with many senior managers who don’t know whether they’re coming or going.”

An interview in the KwaZulu-Natal education office also reveals widespread cronyism.

“We are finding that there are some subject advisers who are expected to support and advise teachers when they themselves have no qualifications in those subjects … Some subject advisers have only matric as their highest qualification – they don’t have a single [university] course beyond matric, let alone a qualification,” the informant is quoted as saying.

“This mess in the system came about when about 400 vacant posts were advertised in [a circular in] 2009. The process that was followed to appoint subject advisers following the advertisement was manoeuvred and tampered with. That is why we had wrong appointments to the extent that a subject adviser, because he is so uncomfortable with the content, asks teachers, who are more qualified than him, to facilitate a workshop on his behalf.”

Union meddling and the gross mismanagement of staff had dire effects on learning and teaching in classrooms, as well as on the maintenance of school infrastructure, the report says. Rural, multigrade schools were, in most cases, the worst off.

Fourteen percent of all schools have multigrade classes, which cater to 5% of pupils, and most of these classes are in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

When a school’s enrolment is very low, the only viable option is to employ one teacher to teach all pupils in different grades at the same time. There are slightly more than 24 700 of these teachers.

Most of the schools the evaluators visited had buildings that were in an “adequate state”, but “the state of the toilets were unacceptable”. They were “of the pit variety, or in [a] poor state of repair and unsanitary. This was the case in 34% of monograde and 42% of multigrade schools.”

The evaluators assessed the extent to which teachers gave appropriate instruction to pupils in each of the grades in the same class. They found that “this seemed to be effective in only 11%” of these classes”.

“This means that most teachers observed made no attempt to provide different learning experiences appropriate to each of the respective grade levels incorporated into the class. In other words … teachers presented the same material and the same exercise to all child­ren, regardless of their ages and grade levels.”

The evaluators also assessed oral reading fluency among grade five pupils which revealed alarming results. Reading comprehension by pupils at this level is periodically tested and the reading skills of pupils is well known, but oral reading fluency “has not been assessed to any extent”, the report says.

It says “oral reading fluency (ORF) is a blind spot not only within the schools visited, but also among subject advisers”.

In total, 1 790 pupils were tested for oral reading fluency. More than 10% of the sample could not read.

“They read at average speeds of 46.64 words correct per minute … At this age, they should be reading at 90 to 100 words correct per minute,” says the report.

“When spoken to in English, these learners did not understand what the evaluator was asking them to do.”

Another 11.06% of pupils could read only a few words, and at a very slow rate of 20 words correct per minute or less.

“Such learners are generally considered illiterate,” says the report, “suggesting that nearly 22% of grade five pupils tested are illiterate. This figure is even more alarming given that English is the language of learning and teaching for these pupils and that they are expected to access their subject content by using English textbooks.”

Minister’s call
The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson for basic education, Annette Lovemore, said the report should have been released on June 18 last year. In a parliamentary question in October last year, Lovemore asked Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga when she would release the report to the public.

Motshekga replied: “The report will be issued on a date to be decided by the minister.”

Lovemore said the annual national assessment (ANA) results showed improving literacy trends, whereas the Needu reports painted a very bleak picture.

“The minister appears to strongly prefer the ANA reports, based on exercises through which children have been coached, not comparable year on year, and not internationally benchmarked.”

She said there was a third Needu report on reading in the intermediate phase. The minister has not made that report public either.

The basic education department did not respond to the M&G’s questions by the time of going to print.

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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