/ 1 February 2019

Vetting lapse puts pupils at risk

Slip-up: Thousands of teachers are sliding through cracks in the South African Council for Educators’ system for checking whether their qualifications are genuine and they’re not rapists or paedophiles.
Slip-up: Thousands of teachers are sliding through cracks in the South African Council for Educators’ system for checking whether their qualifications are genuine and they’re not rapists or paedophiles. (Oupa Nkosi)

Three years ago, a convicted paedophile taught at a primary school in Cape Town for three months.

Brian Shofer (58) later committed suicide in the holding cells of the Lentegeur police station after being charged with multiple rapes of a boy, beginning when the child was just 12 years old. The Daily Voice reported then that he had been previously convicted of sexual assault, dating back to 1994, when he abused boys as young as seven and 14 in Mitchells Plain.

But Shofer was permitted to teach, underscoring the systemic failure of the screening process used by the South African Council for Educators (Sace), the government body responsible for registering teachers.

This also means there may be thousands of people with fake qualifications teaching in schools, according to insiders who spoke to the Mail & Guardian, and there are 17 000 current teachers who are not registered at all, according to the council itself.

Insiders have accused the council of being “careless” and “gambling” with the lives of pupils.

Until the end of last year, prospective teachers only had to submit a declaration that they had never been convicted for any crimes that would make them unsuitable to work with children. Only foreign teachers had to submit a police clearance certificate before their registration could be finalised.

A new vetting process, instituted at the beginning of this year, requires would-be teachers to submit a police clearance certificate. But the council is letting applicants submit just the proof that they have applied for police clearance.

In a parliamentary reply this month, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revealed that the council had registered 1 127 new teachers provisionally until the end of June without seeing their police clearance certificates.

Sources in Sace, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, said this could put pupils at risk of harm.

“You give these people provisional letters for six months but does it save children from any harm for those six months? How are we going to be sure that these people we have registered, who are probably in classrooms as we speak, are clean?” one asked.

Another said, for the first few weeks of this year, the council refused to register people who didn’t have a certificate but it was later told it should register them.

“We suspect that there was outside influence that led to Sace relaxing the rule, because the one minute we were turning people away and next we were told that we must accept even those people that come with a receipt from the police station that shows that they have applied for the certificate.

“For us, the council is sabotaging itself, because you can’t say people must bring a police clearance and then do a U-turn. It means for six months we have paedophiles, murderers and rapists teaching children and we don’t know.”

Sace spokesperson Themba Ndhlovu said some education departments and other stakeholders have complained about the police being slow in processing clearance certificates. This delay, he said, is negatively affecting the registration and employment of teachers.

“The rationale for allowing the submission of proof that one has applied for a police clearance certificate was to respond to the concerns from stakeholders,” said Ndhlovu.

Although teachers are legally required to register with the council before they teach, Sace revealed in its 2018-2019 annual performance plan that there are about 17 000 teachers who are practising as teachers without having registered.

Ndhlovu said it was the responsibility of employers to ensure that all teachers are registered with Sace.

“The council wrote letters to heads of departments in all provinces reminding them of section 21 of the Sace Act, which states that no person can be employed in an educator post if not registered with the council.”

Insiders add that thousands of people with fake qualifications may have been allowed to register as teachers, as a result of Sace’s lax vetting processes. The council has also been criticised for not checking potential teachers against the national register of sexual offenders and the national child protection register.

“We do not have a system to check if the qualifications are legit. It’s a question of experience; we can see if the qualification is from Unisa, for example. We look at the font and all those things and we then say, ‘No, it looks authentic’,” a Sace employee said. “So if a qualification is fake but looks authentic, it can go through because we do not have a proper system of checking for the legitimacy of qualifications.”

Ndhlovu said the council has signed an agreement with the South African Qualifications Authority to deal with verification of qualifications.

In December, two teachers in Mpumalanga were arrested by the Hawks for using fake qualifications. Sibongile Khuzwayo and Nonjabulo Mabuza had been teaching at the Seme Secondary School for eight years and two years respectively.

Isabel Magaya, a researcher at the Centre for Child Law, said the new vetting process should eventually ensure that people working with children had no previous record of abuse against children. But there was no excuse for the previous policy of registering teachers without the necessary police clearance certificate.

“The safety of children is the most important thing and they cannot let their oversight contribute to the vulnerability of children because, when you develop a policy, you’re supposed to look at all angles and foresee issues that could go wrong,” Magaya said.

Sace, appearing before the parliamentary portfolio committee on basic education in 2017, said it was striving to address the verification of qualifications but that progress was hampered by capacity and financial resources problems.