/ 12 August 2020

Towards a people’s economics of education

Basic Education Gets A Warm Reception In Icy Finland
Reopening of schools seems to be less about the teachers, parents and students and more about desperate attempts to rescue our failing and unsustainable capitalist economy

Recent debates concerning the opening or closing of schools have demonstrated the incommensurability of positivist science and the lived reality of working-class families. On one side of the debate are economists and epidemiologists who brandish statistical analyses about what percentage of children are likely to fall severely ill or die. On the other side are the people on the ground, the working class who are on the frontlines and parents for whom the necropolitics of counting acceptable “losses” or deaths does not fit well, and for whom the loss of even one life must be accounted for differently: such as the loss of a child, a mother, a father, a sister or brother — and a loved one. 

Economic pundits, whose arguments now proliferate in the media and who appear to be the go-to perspectives for our politicians, seem to disregard the perspectives of teachers (professionals in teaching, learning and schooling) and parents and students (experts on what is practical and achievable in terms of policy aims). Yet, for all the obsession with the quantification of problems in schooling during Covid-19, there seems to be less concern with the quantification and accounting of some gravely important issues concerning schools in South Africa, all of which must be taken into consideration by policymakers and implementers when attempting to answer the question of how to open schools justly. Maybe what we need now is an economics of education that is rooted in our context, a “people’s economics”. Here are some questions such an approach might begin with:

What are the effects of austerity-based budget cuts in basic education on our schools and how do these cuts affect school readiness during the pandemic?

If economists are genuinely concerned about the education of children and youth, then we should expect them to lend their voice to the growing concerns and tangible negative effects of budget cuts in basic education. In recent years, the budget for basic education has been declining and if we think conditions in public schools are bad now, they will only be exacerbated by further budget cuts. These cuts mean fewer resources for schools to work with, fewer teachers to teach our children, fewer classrooms and fewer schools. These budget cuts also coincide with the reality that many schools, particularly in the large urban metros, are at capacity. 

All this has rendered the majority of “no-fee” public schools unprepared to adequately accommodate students during the pandemic because they don’t have sufficient classrooms, staff, space or ablution facilities.

For what percentage of students was the academic year already lost before the Covid-19 pandemic?

Many of the arguments that have been put forward for the opening of schools concern the hope of “saving the academic year”. Although this is an admirable goal, since the education of our children and youth are matters of critical importance, in reality, the academic year was already lost for a significant portion of our age-appropriate population. One local organisation, The DG Murray Trust (DGMT), claims that about “40% of Grade 1 learners will exit the schooling system before finishing matric”. Further to this point, according to the department of basic education (DBE) school realities fact sheet, the number of Grade 11 students enrolled in 2019 totalled 824 802, in comparison to the number of Grade 10 students who were enrolled in 2018, which was 997 872. What happened to 173 070 students in just one year? 

In the rush to open schools, what will be done for the 40% who have already been pushed out of our schools by alienating curriculum and pedagogical practices, by the untenable conditions of school buildings, by language policies that exclude and by the depressing realities of the attenuated spaces that many school sites are? Or is the now-urgent concern less about schooling, teaching and learning but about desperate attempts to rescue our failing and unsustainable capitalist economy?

How many students have not been placed in a school by provincial departments of education?

It is an increasing reality that, every year, thousands of students do not find a school placement and are unable to be assisted by provincial departments of education. Prior to Covid-19, parents, teachers and community activists from the Mitchell’s Plain Education Forum (Cape Flats) had campaigned concerning this issue. In the Western Cape, where there are still unplaced students, MEC Debbie Schäfer wrote earlier this year that 23 new schools would need to be built in order to accommodate all of our students. 

Economists should provide us with up-to-date information on how many students are still seeking a place in a school, how many schools the government needs to build and how many additional teachers and support staff need to be employed to manage and run those schools. Additionally, economists should quantify how much of the academic year was lost for many of these students during the months they were trying to find a school, if they ever did. 

Again, given that this problem existed before the pandemic, we must ask about this delayed onset of urgency and why more impetus was not given to get all students to school, why more schools and classrooms were not built and why more teachers were not employed. Now it seems, there is a rush to get students back, even without sufficient classrooms, teachers and resources.

What percentage of the school curriculum is actually “covered” by the majority of schools in a typical school year?

A less well-known problem, but one which the DBE acknowledges, is that curriculum coverage in our public schools is mediocre. According to the DBE document “Action Plan 2019: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2030”, curriculum coverage is in the region of “53% at the national level varied, at the provincial level, from 24% in the case of North West to 85% in the case of Gauteng”. What this means is that a significant portion of students do not get access to the full school curriculum, even when they do attend school. It is reasonable to suspect that this might be partly explained by teacher shortages, not enough support staff and infrastructural problems, since all these would have a bearing on the school day and what work may be possible.

If only 53% of students access the full curriculum in an ordinary year, what might be expected under the conditions of the pandemic, when students are platooning (alternating attendance), when teachers are sick and when schools are having to be decontaminated, adding further disruptions to the status quo? 

Why hasn’t this issue, which warrants serious concern, been considered urgent enough before the pandemic? And if the issue of “saving the academic year” is really what is at stake, what will be done to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to access the full school curriculum, which, if they are in Grade 12, they may be tested on? Once again, perhaps the argument for saving the academic year is merely a tactic to legitimise reopening schools — when there is a great health risk in doing so — for the sake of reopening the economy.

What are the costs to the working class when allowing well-resourced or “fortified” public and private schools to be opened while “exposed” schools are closed?

It is an obvious reality that the schools which may be ready to open will be former Model C, predominantly white schools and private schools. In the context of historical inequities in school funding and the contemporary reality of the concentration of class privilege, these are the schools which have been able to maintain buildings and hire adequate staff through school fees (economic capital) and donations (which often require social capital).

If we consider the reality of the Grade 12s of 2020, a group on whom much focus has been placed and who have been prioritised for school return, the unfairness becomes quite plain to see. A Grade 12 student who attends a working-class school may have to contend with broken rhythms of teaching and learning, may be more exposed to the virus because they are more likely to use public transport such as taxis (at full capacity) and may also be more likely to work in classrooms where physical distancing rules are not observed because there is no space for that.

The student in the working-class school is also more likely to be in the group that does not get access to the full school curriculum and is less likely to be able to get their hands on supportive learning materials such as textbooks or internet-based services which require a mobile device and living in a zone with mobile coverage. That student will then have to compete in the national senior certificate exam against students who have received adequate support because of the fortification of the school they attend. 

Could our economists predict how many students will fail, not because they lack the ability or because they aren’t working hard, but simply because they were born into a working-class family and attend an exposed school? Because the system rejected calls to fund and fix our schools and required students to perform regardless of vast inequalities and inadequacies in schooling long before Covid-19?

Perhaps economists are not really counting the costs when it comes to educational effects during this time, but are rather presenting only select data which legitimise the status quo of class and race that divides in our schooling system.

Maybe this deployment of “the science” by economists who are dislocated from reality on the ground, which is incommensurable with the perspective of the people, and which selects what counts as “data” and what data to count, shows “the science” is not as disinterested and objective as it claims to be. 

In ignoring the grave concerns above, building theories of change and making policy suggestions on narrowly focused sets of data, economists seem to be more concerned about the reopening of the economy than about children, teachers and support staff, or teaching and learning. If it is the safety of children, teachers and support staff that economists are concerned about, then it is unthinkable that schools could be reopened in the state that our schools are in. 

If economists want to rescue teaching and learning, or to “save the academic year”, then it is impossible to attempt to do so without making room to accommodate all our unplaced students, without employing the teachers needed to maintain the smaller class sizes the pandemic demands, without ensuring that all schools have the adequate water and sanitation facilities to meet the demands of the non-pharmaceutical interventions that Covid-19 protocols require, and without building the schools that even our politicians recognise are needed.

If even one life is lost because of policies that force teachers and support staff to be at school with the threat of “no work, no pay” for teachers and the threat of de-registration for students, who should be held accountable? 

Perhaps, invoking “the science” is not about the science at all but is rather an attempt to absolve politicians of their political duty and moral responsibility to the people — an attempt to wash one’s hands of the effects of policymaking by claiming objectivity, even when the arguments and invocations do not match the reality on the ground — while bending to the will of the market, which is hungry for profit and hasty for a return to “normal”.

Ashley Visagie is a Canon Collins scholar studying for his PhD in education at the University of Cape Town. He is also a co-founder of Bottomup, an organisation that promotes critical thinking and social justice among high-school youth, and a member of Thinking Space, a radical scholarship collective