Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 25 April 2013

How much education do we need?

On Wednesday Sadtu members laced up their marching boots and went on a strike – of sorts. The union delivered a fairly detailed list of demands to government, headed by a call for the heads of the basic education minister and her director-general. As usual, the learners are the losers. Does it always have to be this way?

Sadtu marched on Pretoria and Parliament in what looked to me like a fun game of brinkmanship with the department of basic education. The two rivals have been circling each other like bantams at a backyard fight for the better part of a week, threatening to strike and to sue the pants off one another.

It seems clear, to me at least, that the posturing, the press statements and the preposterous list of union demands are all part of a shifting turf war within Cosatu and the tripartite alliance. We’re currently at the stage where different factions are trying to hit each other with whatever is close at hand – Sadtu’s weapons of choice including (but not limited to) friends in Samwu and kids in school uniform.

How times have changed. Just a couple of years ago unions would confine their industrial action to the third quarter of the year. Striking used to be predominantly a winter sport, like soccer. Like soccer, the striking season has started to encroach on autumn and spring too. Unlike soccer, striking has little spectator appeal.

This particular strike also held little appeal to Sadtu members. There were claims from the union that up to 25,000 members would march, but independent estimates suggest that 5,000 strikers in total would be a generous estimate – and that figure would include a fair number of learners and some parents too (call them the Government Road & Parliament Street Irregulars).

Maybe most teachers felt that there was a real risk of dismissal. Maybe they’re becoming increasingly resentful of all of the strikes called for in their name. Sadtu and Samwu top brass might be enamoured of strikes but most workers will only strike if there’s more money in it for them.

I’ve written in the past about how education should shift increasingly to the private sector and was pilloried by some who thought that education was too important to leave to the market. (Of course, I argue that education is too important not to leave to the market, but we’ll agree to disagree.)

One or two valid points were made by those that disagreed with me. One is that I overestimated the ability of the private sector to provide a quality product and my scenario was based more on wishful thinking than sound projections. Another is that my criticism of teachers was far too harsh and uncaring.

An ideological argument comparing the merits of the market with those of the state is, most of the time, an unsolvable one. It is objectively true, however, that public sector basic education is in crisis and the quality of the education is very poor by international standards. One way to frame the argument, given our current failings, is that there’s little to lose by expanding the role of the public sector.

It is true, and always worth repeating, that there are many, many excellent teachers who work hard for less money than they could make in other jobs and who choose education as their vocation. Many of them work in the public school system and many are Sadtu members. It is also true that many teachers have not received the ongoing training and development that they need to be the best at their jobs, and many face poor working conditions due to infrastructure backlogs.

It is furthermore true that the public teaching sector has very few performance management indicators or indeed any kind of system to monitor and evaluate the way that teachers do their jobs. What this means is that there may be very good teachers who deserve much more money for what they do and very bad teachers who should probably be fired, and they all belong to the same union.

People, particularly poor parents with children in the public education system, will be divided when it comes to apportioning responsibility for the failures of the system. Some might support the unions. Some might support the department. For most, the distinction is likely to be academic (if you will pardon the unfortunate pun). What they do know is that their children are being failed on a grand scale.

The other objective truth is that there isn’t more money to go around. Education already eats up the largest share of the budget, about 15% of all government spending. About 80% of all education spending goes to personnel and less than 5% to capital spending. In other words, anywhere up to 12% of all budget spending goes to teachers’ salaries (and other staff-related expenses).

The percentage of the budget spent on education is one of the highest in the world, with the worst outputs. We can explain away and exculpate as little or as much of our failures by blaming the past and our public education system is still going to churn out cohort after cohort of badly-educated and unemployable school-leavers.

We could double the spending on salaries, giving one in every four of our tax rands to teachers, and I bet we will still end up among the bottom 10% of countries in terms of literacy and numeracy. This has less to do with backlogs and legacy issues and more to do with the risk and reward structures of the public education system: one of the many demands made by Sadtu on Wednesday was for a scrapping of all and any clocking-in systems at schools.

It’s one thing to reject a system of school inspections because of the abuses of such a system in the past. It’s quite another to refuse to held accountable for actually being in school to teach. Sadtu can make all the noises it wants about teachers being in school on time and teaching for a full day, but it’s doing everything in its power to avoid doing exactly that.

Is technology making it cheaper and easier to provide education? Undoubtedly, but it’s not at all feasible to scrap the public education system for the foreseeable future, whether you think that’s a desirable outcome or not. The longer that Sadtu and the government provide their non-service to the South African public, the more likely that broader society will band together and find a work-around solution to deliver quality education to all.

Already, Regenesys is giving away course material for free, with students only paying for assignments and exams that they choose to sit.

Even our beloved Department of Communications can’t add too much to the cost of these services through expensive internet connections, and those costs will continue to fall. Regenesys, a completely private company, chose to give its products away for free. It plans to expand its coverage over the entire continent and want to give away free training materials to hundreds of millions of people over the next few years.

It is only a matter of time before there is pressure for primary and secondary training materials to be commonly licensed, and then we won’t have to read about more textbooks going for a swim (although you will still have to take care not to drop your cellphone in the toilet).

It also shouldn’t be too difficult to attract sponsorship for extra training materials or even the funding of community learning centres. All of this will not replace the public education system but it will reduce its monopoly on the education of poor learners.

There is a groundswell of support from most South Africans for anything education-related. In part this is because most people recognise how dire the situation is, and how the work of Sadtu and the department needs to be complemented and supported (and in the worst-cast scenarios, mitigated and ameliorated).

It’s all fun and games for now, if you’re not a student at the business end of all of this neglect and self-interest. The unprofessional and destructive actions of Sadtu might just be the seeds of its own irrelevance and eventual bypassing. Now that would be ironic.

Hopefully, future students will be sufficiently educated to appreciate the irony. DM


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