Opinionista Ian Ollis 27 May 2013

The public schooling system is not fixing the education problem

The difference between schools that perform and those that don’t lies not in the resources to which they have access. What differentiates schools is the efficient, innovative management of available resources, especially teachers.

Two high schools in my constituency illustrate the problem we have in schools across the country. The first school, lets call it school A, is situated in Alexandra. A visit to the school shows row upon row of awards received by the school for being the best in this or that. It clearly is not the worst in Alexandra. The pupils are all black (I say that for a reason) and come from poor households in Alexandra and a few from Tembisa. The matric pass rate (the percentage of learners who pass) has been in the 50s for some years now. Last year the pass rate dropped 8%. The school has now been targeted for a recovery programme by the education department. School, for matrics, now starts just before 7:00 and lessons go on until 16:00.  Learners in grades 10 and 11 also have longer school hours now and are part of the recovery programme. When leaving after these exceptionally long hours, they have homework to do at home also. The school, we would have to say, is struggling.

Another school that I visit on my rounds, let’s call it school B, is a little closer to Sandton and not actually in Alexandra. Its pupils however are also 99% black and come from Alexandra, with a few from Tembisa. They are also from poor families. Many youngsters in Alexandra come from single-parent families and a far too large number are from child-headed households, receive death benefits from parents who are no longer alive, or are being brought up by other relatives. School B, however, has been achieving a pass rate for matrics of between 93% and 95% in recent years.

A simple comparison shows that both schools have pupils drawn from the same environment, same race, same income level. Both schools are overcrowded, with additional classes operating in the school hall. Classes are too big and parents, particularly in higher grades, give little support. In fact, school A receives a much greater amount of government finance than school B, yet school B is performing almost 100% better, with regards to its pass rate. Facilities are similar. Both schools have buildings in need of public works repairs and maintenance. Guttering doesn’t work, roof leaks occur from time to time and the buildings need serious paintwork and other maintenance done. The one obvious external difference is that school B has a few green sports fields alongside. School A has none. Both schools have libraries, perhaps the one in school B is a little better stocked.

Yet there must be something different, leading to such divergent results. The history of the management of the school is where the difference must lie. School B did some things differently. Clem Sunter tells a story of his experience as the chairman of Anglo American’s Chairman’s Fund. I have shared speaking engagements with him from time to time and he has pointed out more than once that the fund witnessed vastly different results from schools that it supported. Millions each year were poured into schools that the fund agreed to support. Facilities were built or renovated, equipment, such as computers was purchased and libraries were stocked. Yet some schools still didn’t perform, no matter what resources were thrown at them. Detailed studies were performed comparing underperforming schools with those that were achieving great results, and these revealed the same result over and over again: The management of the school, on the ground, was the big difference between a school that succeeded and one that struggled. The amount of money and resources thrown at a school had limited results in terms of improvement of the exam results at those schools, when compared with the style and quality of the management.

School B clearly had a principal who was on the ball. She instilled discipline in pupils constantly. More importantly, she instilled a sense of discipline in the teachers. They were in school, teaching. They were on time, took fewer sick days and didn’t take as much time off for union meetings. These teachers were pushed to improve their training and were chosen by the governing body and principal for their qualifications, experience and evidence of hard work. I remember one teacher was a Zimbabwean at one point, but he was dedicated and hard working. Teachers were not selected on the basis of demographics, but ability. That was clear. Children were told to straighten their ties and shorts and pull up their socks. They were encouraged to use and look after textbooks and library books. At one point, the principal realised that she didn’t have enough desks and that some were in need of repair. So she sent a bakkie around to better schools in the area and collected old desk frames from other schools that had been discarded. She then had the desk frames painted by the school caretaker, while she went off to the hardware store and had planks cut and edged to the exact sizes that the desks needed. The caretaker then bolted the new wooden tops onto the desks and varnished them before delivering them to classrooms around the school.

Alexandra schools generally have struggled with teachers’ unions. At one point school inspectors were locked out of schools by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). Teachers go off to union meetings when requested. Setting and enforcing high standards is difficult for the department with Sadtu breathing down its neck. If the school principal, deputies and department heads are unable to instil teacher and pupil discipline internally, the department struggles to intervene. A leader in the teachers’ union affiliated with Fedusa, at a recent meeting with the DA, pointed out that up to 140,000 school teachers in South Africa are unqualified or under-qualified for the classes that they are teaching. Heaven help parents who send their children to schools with unqualified teachers. That is one of the reasons that so many parents in Soweto moved their children to schools in the suburbs, leading to so many Soweto schools being closed down. As my colleague, Annette Lovemore, has pointed out, the basic education minister “will have to insist on effective screening and competence monitoring of teachers, competence tests to be passed by subject advisors and by any teachers who apply for promotion posts. She will have to implement proficiency criteria for all promotion posts, including the post of school principal.” The Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and observations in my constituency would seem to agree. DM

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