Western Cape Grade R teachers demand permanent employment and benefits in the public sector
In the past two months, Grade R teachers have twice marched through Cape Town to demand permanent employment in the public sector and placement on the Human Resource, Personnel and Salary System. Many of them rely on short-term contracts with no benefits, and are vulnerable to the whims of their employers.
Phumla Mkunyana has been working as a Grade R teacher since 1998. It’s an important job that strengthens the foundations of children’s academic futures. In 24 years, she has never held a permanent position, always being bounced from one short-term contract to the next.
This form of employment leaves her without benefits such as a pension or medical insurance, and means she is vulnerable to losing her job at short notice.
“The disadvantage is that we can be fired anytime they want to fire us,” she said. “Without any warnings, you can just be fired.”
Last year, Mkunyana had to take sick leave for a medical procedure. When she exceeded her leave days, the principal of the school at which she worked refused to pay her.
Mkunyana asked the Department of Education for help. However, the department forwarded her email to the principal of the school. As a result, Mkunyana was called a “backstabber” and fired.
“I needed my job back. I just kept on apologising,” she said. “I know my rights, but I didn’t have anyone to fight for my rights.”
While Mkunyana did get her job back, her working conditions remain poor. The school can go months without paying the Grade R teachers their stipends, with payments currently lagging about seven months behind.
It is situations like Mkunyana’s that have pushed Grade R teachers to take to the streets in recent months, demanding better working conditions. The teachers have held two marches through Cape Town, one to Parliament on 5 July and another to the Western Cape provincial legislature on 9 August — National Women’s Day.
The teachers are seeking permanent employment under the Western Cape Education Department and inclusion in the integrated Human Resource, Personnel and Salary (Persal) System, a central system used for the administration of the public service payroll.
“Grade R teachers want to be on Persal with all [the] benefits like other [post level 1 teachers],” stated the memorandum handed over at the legislature on 9 August. Post level 1 teachers are general classroom teachers.
Currently, Grade R teachers are paid via school governing bodies (SGB) and are not eligible to be on the Persal system, according to Somikazi Mtya, spokesperson at the recent marches. Many are on short-term contracts with no pension or health insurance.
“We have quite a big number of educators who are dismissed unfairly due to that kind of contract. If you’re going back to your job in January, when the school starts, it depends on the governing body or the principal if they are going to renew the contract or not,” said Mtya.
“If the principal doesn’t want to renew the contract, you don’t have back-up on that, because the Department of Education will be saying, ‘We cannot stand on your behalf. You are employed by the principal or the SGB’.”
Western Cape Education MEC David Maynier said the department considered Grade R a vital year in preparing learners for the foundation phase.
“Unfortunately, the national government does not consider Grade R to be a compulsory school year, and as such does not fund provincial governments to provide it,” he said.
“The practitioners have marched to the wrong sphere of government — they should be calling on the national government to provide the necessary funding for us to provide posts to Grade R teachers.”
The provincial education department does provide schools with Grade R subsidies in line with the Amended National Norms and Standards for
A school’s Grade R educators are meant to receive 80% of the subsidy allocation, which is transferred biannually. The remaining 20% goes to learning and teaching support materials and operational costs.
However, some schools do not pay Grade R teachers the money they should, according to Chanelle van Niekerk, a Grade R teacher from Manenberg, Cape Town. All too often, these incidents go unreported due to the fear of reprisals.
“If you go and report anything bad about your school or your principal, or whoever, then the next year, they can discontinue your contract because you’re not permanent,” she explained.
“A lot of the time, the ladies are scared because at the end of the day, if you now raise your voice, then you might not get signed next year. So, somebody else will take your job.”
Those who do receive their full stipends are still paid far less than other foundation phase teachers, including those teaching Grade 1, said Van Niekerk.
“We’re tired of being treated like nothing, even at the schools. We have to put in all the work, but at the end of the day there’s no recognition coming to us.”
A number of Grade R educators told Maverick Citizen that as the qualification requirements for teaching Grade R became more intensive, they were assured by the Department of Education that those who met the standards would have an opportunity to be permanently employed in the public sector.
Though many have met the current minimum requirements — a diploma in Grade R teaching or a Bachelor of Education in Foundation Phase Teaching — this promise remains unfulfilled.
Maverick Citizen asked the Department of Basic Education about the Grade R teachers’ situation, including their demand for permanent employment in the public sector.
Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the department, said, “The BELA [Basic Education Laws Amendment] Bill, which is currently being processed by Parliament, seeks to address that very issue. Amongst others, the Bill seeks to amend certain definitions and to provide that attendance of Grade R is compulsory.”
Once this has taken place, he said, other matters such as the qualifications of the educators, conditions of employment and strengthening of the curriculum will follow.
Though they are often overlooked, Grade R teachers are an important part of education and development. “We are laying the foundation for future learning. If there is no foundation, then it’s just going to make the Grade 1 teacher’s job more difficult. It’s going to make the Grade 2 teacher’s job more difficult,” said Van Niekerk.
“It’s not just the academic side that goes with it — it’s the physical, it’s the emotional. We need to develop the whole child so that… when the child goes to school, that child is confident, that child is secure.” DM/MC