Section 29 of the Constitution speaks to the right to education. The right to education is an absolute right and, unlike other socio-economic rights, it is not subject to progressive realisation and availability of resources. As well as being a right in itself, education is a vehicle for the realisation of a host of other constitutional rights, including dignity and equality. Education is key in closing gaps created by a history of oppression and inequality, enabling all pupils to become active and responsible citizens and to contribute to their society and their communities. I cannot stress enough the importance of teaching.
Given the importance of the right to education, should teaching be made an essential service?
Maybe one should start by looking why the ANC wants teaching to be an essential service. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe is reported to have said that it is crucial that, “We improve our education. We must be the best country when it comes to education, quality and system. That is why we made education one of the priorities.”
If the intention of the ANC in making teaching an essential service is to improve education then it has the wrong end of the stick.
I am a researcher at SECTION27 and have witnessed the challenges facing schools, especially rural and special schools, as well as the conditions in which teachers have to work.
We first started visiting schools in rural Limpopo in early 2012. During our visits the first thing that we noticed was the state of the infrastructure at many of these schools. Many of the school building are old and dilapidated. A ceiling is rare. The roofs have huge holes and the classrooms have enormous cracks in the walls and on the concrete slabs of the structure. Most of the structures are unstable and are not properly maintained. This environment is not at all conducive to learning or teaching.
In many of the schools we visited there are huge overcrowding challenges. Some classes have more than 120 pupils. This makes it difficult for the teacher to teach and it makes it difficult for pupils to concentrate. There are still pupils for whom a tree represents a classroom. During the rainy season, teachers cannot conduct lessons without shelter and during summer the heat is unbearable for pupils and teachers.
Many of the schools in the province do not receive adequate “norms and standards funding”. This is the money schools use for day-to-day expenses. This money is used to pay for services such as water and electricity, stationery, the maintenance of photocopy machines and minor repairs. When schools do not receive this money on time, or they receive only a portion of this funding, essential services such as water and electricity cannot be paid, chalk and other essential stationery cannot be bought. How does one teach without chalk, never mind water and electricity?
Sanitation at these schools is also a huge issue. Many of these schools use pit toilets. Often, these are dilapidated, the pits are full and there is no ventilation. The toilets are poorly constructed and, as a result, the bases of the toilets are cracked causing water to seep through flood the toilet floor. The pupils can then not use the toilets. In addition, many of the toilets in the schools have collapsed during heavy flooding. Teachers also do not have sanitation facilities. In primary schools, teachers have to stop lessons to accompany pupils to the toilet because it is dangerous for them to go alone.
What is truly amazing at these schools is that the teachers are incredibly dedicated to their jobs. School often starts at 6:30 and ends at 16:30. Teachers conduct extra classes over the weekend and during term breaks without remuneration. Even the teachers who teach under the tree find creative ways to keep their pupils interested and learning. They stand in the sun and teach because they want their pupils to be the best they possibly can be. Even in these circumstances some schools manage to produce a good pass rate.
The situation at the special schools (for pupils with special needs) we visited was worse still. Teachers are not provided with the essentials, such as textbooks and continuous training, necessary for them to provide quality education. Teachers in some special schools have to spend long hours before and after class transcribing textbooks into Braille because they do not receive textbooks in Braille for their pupils. Teachers do not have assistants and, in some schools, have to manage classes that have as many as 18 pupils. This is not conducive for learning or teaching.
Teachers at special schools have no choice but to go the extra mile. They create little devices to illustrate different concepts to the learners; they work with pupils to create artwork that can help pupils to grasp numerical concepts as well as graphs. And they are actively involved in fundraising to meet the equipment needs of the schools. In short, they are determined to provide quality education – despite the overwhelming challenges.
These are but some of the challenges facing schools in rural areas and some special schools. These are the working conditions of many teachers across the country. In addition to poor working conditions, teachers are not paid much. Many teachers complain that they receive too much money to qualify for an RDP house, yet too little to qualify for bonds. Many teachers are uninspired. Communication between the department and teachers is also poor. In many instances teachers feel that they have no choice but to embark on strike action to convey the challenges they face.
How do we then resolve the problems in education?
First, we need to accept that there is indeed a crisis in education and that we have a joint responsibility to fix this. The minister must prescribe minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure that actually give direction, that will help provincial authorities understand their obligations and assist the schools to understand what they are entitled to. There needs to be a reasonable plan to get existing schools to comply with these standards. There needs to be proper oversight by the Department of Education and early warning systems to identify and assist provinces that are struggling. These are but a few examples of what is necessary if we are to improve our education system.
The real issue is investment, monitoring and accountability of all the role-players in the education system. Education needs to be a societal issue not an essential service. DM