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From the Inside: Our ‘industrial relations’ regime in schools plays Russian Roulette with kids’ future

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

How is it possible, after all the money and effort we have invested, specifically in the foundation phase of schooling, that progress in learner outcomes has been so slow?

When we have sliced and diced the results of the various international diagnostic tests that compare education outcomes in different countries, the same conclusion emerges about South African schools.

About 75% of our schools perform abysmally against international benchmarks.

About 15% span the “satisfactory” spectrum.

And the remainder, up to 10%, compete favourably with the best in the world.

On the rare occasion that these test results are disaggregated provincially (such as the latest PIRLS study that measured the capacity of Grade 4 learners to understand what they are reading), Western Cape schools perform significantly better than other provinces.

But this is small consolation for the Western Cape Education Department. How is it possible, after all the money and effort we have invested, specifically in the foundation phase of schooling, that progress in learner outcomes has been so slow? How is it that 55% of Western Cape learners in Grade 4, cannot answer simple questions based on age-appropriate texts they have read in their mother tongue?

This is the question uppermost in my mind as I enter my final 18 months in office. In trying to get to the answers, I have attempted to diagnose the problem, as accurately as possible, so that we can target our interventions, and our scarce resources, in the hope of dramatically improving our children’s literacy and numeracy, on which the rest of their education – and their life chances – depend.

I started by focusing on one of the worst-performing primary schools in the province. I have included much of the detail here, because it is essential to show just how dire the situation is in some schools.

A lot of information was available for this particular school, drawn from a “whole school evaluation” initiated by the Western Cape Education Department during 2016, in which the school scored rock-bottom on the evaluation spectrum. But this “tick-box” does not nearly tell the whole story. My investigation was greatly assisted through interviews with a team of experts, whose arrival at the school was facilitated by the department at the end of that year, in a last-ditch attempt to fix it. These discussions have revealed the full scale of the catastrophe, that is replicated, in various forms, in far too many schools throughout our province and country.

The most shocking conclusion to emerge, at this school, is that learners in Grade 7 (who are in their eighth year of formal schooling) are still reading at the level expected by learners at the end of Grade R (the reception year before Grade 1).

In an attempt to rescue their education prospects, these children are now being put onto e-learning programmes designed to teach reading and writing to child soldiers emerging from guerrilla wars. Yes, it’s true, and bears repeating: Children who have spent almost eight years in a well-built and well-equipped Western Cape school, with a full complement of teachers, can now only be salvaged by programmes designed for children who have spent their lives in bush combat and never seen the inside of a classroom.

A generous donor has assisted us to employ 19 facilitators (over and above the full teaching complement employed on a ratio of 35 learners to 1 teacher) to assist with the new literacy and numeracy programmes, and we have extended the school day by three hours – to 16:00 – to help learners catch up. The extra time will be devoted to intensive literacy and numeracy programmes.

How did things come to this?

In a nutshell, the answer is this:

Out of 37 teachers at the school, 17 either cannot, or will not, teach. Yet they continue to draw their salaries, month after month, year after year.

And the other teachers, some of whom are dedicated and capable, are inevitably sucked into a vortex of dysfunctionality, terrified to put their heads above the parapet for fear of victimisation by a corrupt and self-serving network who have an interest in protecting the status quo.

There has been no measurable improvement in teaching performance, despite repeated in-service training programmes and other support interventions.

At any given time at least one third of classrooms are without teachers.

And when teachers are actually in class, teaching is not necessarily happening.

While learner attendance is high, teacher absenteeism, often for extended periods, is rife.

Teachers know how to play the system: one managed to stay away for 18 months in a three-year cycle without adverse consequences.

Time management at the school was pitifully weak, with late arrivals, early departures, and teaching time crowded out by other activities.

Teachers refused to take any work home – including exam preparation and marking – all of which were done during teaching time (to the extent that they were done at all). Unsurprisingly, hardly any of the year’s syllabus was covered, in any grade, a problem compounded year on year.

Libraries and computer laboratories (stripped by vandals and thieves) were closed down, and there were no extramural programmes at all.

Despite a full maintenance budget and a complement of cleaning staff, the school was in a state of permanent filth and disrepair, with collapsed ceilings, and some classrooms so full of accumulated dirt, including a crust of pigeon faeces, that gagging was an instant physical reflex on entry. Even worse, the plumbing system failed regularly and usually took months to fix.

Food disappeared, in significant quantities, from the feeding scheme.

What was the governing body doing about all this, I asked? Their purpose is to ensure competent and effective school governance.

Unsurprisingly, I learnt that the governing body never met. Corrupt principals prefer it that way. The school was “run” by a parasitic insider network, headed by the principal, who regarded their positions of power as a licence to loot. Even though such abuse is often common knowledge, it is very difficult to prove, especially when it also involves the marginalisation and victimisation of anyone who dares to raise questions, compounded by resistance to “outside interference”.

Sooner or later, however, thieves usually fall out among themselves. During the course of last year, the mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship (I’ll-sign-your-cheque-if-you’ll-sign-mine) ended in acrimony – and, crucially, produced evidence which the district office immediately followed up.

A lot of information emerged about the crony network that regulated the nomination of staff for posts, the contracting of service providers, and the payment of transport subsidies. In short, nothing happened at that school without a “top-slice” or “kickback” for the inner circle. This explained why, for example, the principal had rebuffed attempts by officials to contract plumbers in emergency circumstances to fix the school toilets. He wanted to manage the maintenance programme himself and pocket part of the cash.

When this evidence emerged, the principal was suspended, charged and eventually dismissed. The deputy principal resigned. But two departmental heads (who turned “state witness”) got away very lightly – with a final written warning – which lapsed after six months.

I was amazed to learn that, despite the fact that this school has been completely dysfunctional for more than a decade, the Western Cape Education Department’s labour relations directorate only started investigating misconduct charges at the end of 2016. It is difficult to allocate the responsibility for this failure to any individual. In a huge bureaucracy, a lot of people in different silos know a little about many things. The challenge is to co-ordinate information, collate the evidence, and get action taken by the officials who have the legal mandate to pursue disciplinary matters. Then the allegations have to be “tested” following due process. It is enormously complicated, compounded by the broken telephone effect as well as the inevitable tendency in bureaucracies for officials either to actively protect one another, or at least to give each other the benefit of the doubt, especially when their union endorses slogans such as “an injury to one is an injury to all”. The resultant life-long injury to learners does not always feature in the equation.

Unsurprisingly, a yawning chasm soon opens up between what senior officials and politicians think is going on in schools – and what is actually happening. Bridging this gap must become a priority if we are to resolve these problems.

How was it possible, I asked, that the principal (appointed in 2012) was later discovered to have resigned from his previous school during an investigation into financial “irregularities” (which would, if proven, have resulted in mandatory dismissal)? The answer I got was: “Because he resigned, before formal charges were laid, he walked away with a clean record.”

He was free to apply for a principal’s post at another school.

It is essential to find ways, within the law, to end this malevolent form of musical chairs, which all too often sees the corrupt and incompetent walk away from the chaos they create at one institution, merely to repeat it at another. The relevant officials are currently working on proposals to prevent a repetition of this kind of travesty.

But this is only one of many interventions required.

At the heart of the problems in our school system lies our “industrial relations” regime, which prioritises the interests of the weakest teachers over the educational interests of children. This is the primary driver of the lack of accountability in education. Amazingly, since the dawn of democracy, not a single teacher in the Western Cape Education Department has been dismissed for poor performance or incompetence.

Although the regulation of the labour relations dispensation lies with national government, we cannot blame them. I would prefer the law to be tougher, but even as it stands it enables us to take the necessary action against incompetent educators.

Section 16 of the Employment of Educators Act, dealing with the subject of “incapable educators”, reads: “If it is alleged that an educator is unfit for the duties attached to the educator’s post or incapable of carrying out those duties efficiently, the employer must assess the capacity of the educator and may take action against the educator in accordance with the incapacity code and procedures for poor work performance as provided in Schedule 1.”

The provincial education authorities are the “employer” in terms of the law.

Of course, “Schedule 1” establishes an enormously onerous process, which would keep any conscientious principal or official busy almost full-time for months – if they could muster the courage to stare down the militant coalition of incompetence that often arises to resist accountability in dysfunctional schools. We have to find a way around this obstacle.

Then there is the issue of serious misconduct, including corruption, dealt with in Section 17 of the Act.

An educator must be dismissed if he or she is found guilty of [amongst many other infringements] theft, bribery, fraud or an act of corruption in regard to examinations or promotional reports.”

Why, I asked, had the Labour Relations Directorate of the Western Cape Education Department not applied Section 17 to the school in question?

For example, what had been done about multiple cases of proven academic fraud committed by teachers at the school (often by repeat offenders)? This usually involved distributing marking memoranda to learners before exams, in order to enable them to disguise their illiteracy and artificially inflate their marks. Inevitably this came to light when the children brought the marking memoranda into the exam venue to try to copy the answers provided beforehand by their teachers.

In terms of the law, a conviction on this charge must result in dismissal.

Instead, I was told, in those instances where prosecution and conviction followed, the educators involved received final written warnings, which lapsed after six months. I am still trying to establish how this was possible. If it is true, then the officials themselves have broken the law and must face the consequences.

But another question arises: How do such pitifully weak and/or lazy teachers get appointed in the first place?

The answer, at this particular school, was that the appointment process had been hijacked by a departmental head who found a willing accomplice in the principal. Their scheme provided a textbook example of the notorious “jobs for cash” scam run by some Sadtu educators and exposed in 2016 by the Volmink investigative task team, appointed by Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga.

Why did the Western Cape Education Department’s departmental checks and balances fail to identify these practices and put a stop to them? I have not yet had a satisfactory answer to this question. Despite our failures in this regard, I nevertheless reject the national government’s proposal to solve the problem by stripping governing bodies of their power to nominate teachers for employment. This would punish all governing bodies for the transgressions of a few. Many are doing an excellent job of nominating good teachers. There is no guarantee at all that the situation would improve if departmental officials were responsible for this function.

A far more useful intervention is to ensure people with sufficient expertise serve on governing bodies to empower them to make informed decisions in the interests of their children. At the moment Sadtu dominates many selection panels, and often claims sole right to fill positions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. They usually run rings around parents who are mostly the products of very weak schools themselves, and have no way of knowing what qualities, qualifications and past experience are required of a good teacher and competent school management. Often, key governing body members (and even officials) are co-opted into the self-enrichment network as well.

Although corruption-free selection processes are essential, they are insufficient to ensure the employment of competent educators. Too many teachers, even those with qualifications, have no idea how to teach reading in the foundation phase, using phonics and graded readers. This needs to be addressed through teacher training programmes – and competency testing – before teachers are employed at foundation phase level. We have already introduced competency testing for principals, deputy principals and department heads. Despite the bureaucratic hassles involved, we need to find ways to ensure appropriate pre-service tests for foundation phase teachers as well.

Typically, at failing schools, educators blame the children for poor learning outcomes, saying they are incapable of, or uninterested in, becoming literate and numerate. To deal with this excuse, specialist tests were undertaken across a random, stratified sample of learners in all grades to evaluate their “capacity to learn”. Identified barriers to learning were in line with the population as a whole. The vast majority of learners were found to have the inherent ability to master the curriculum.

And what of the role of their parents?

Apart from a few “captured” members of the governing body, the rest have been supportive of the transformation effort. They now attend parent meetings in large numbers, hungry for the truth about the academic performance of their children. They support the imposition of longer school hours, and the greater emphasis on punctuality. They attend school events. A “civvies day” recently raised R10,000 (from a very poor community) to assist a nearby school for learners with disabilities.

Mercifully, what we call the spirit of “ubuntu” is still alive. But in far too many schools it has been allowed to degenerate into a mutual-protection racket, where educators stand together to defend the most incompetent and corrupt among them, either because they are all implicated, or because they are frightened. It is a direct reflection of the situation in the Zuma cabinet.

While the Western Cape Education Department pours tremendous additional effort and resources into this particular school, we must acknowledge that this intervention is too costly to replicate in all schools that need it. We can do so in this specific case only because of an extremely generous donation that has enabled us to restore the school’s physical infrastructure, re-equip the computer laboratories, add 19 facilitators to the staff complement, and contract an entire team of experts to turn the school around. Replicating this model in all dysfunctional schools would cost billions we do not have.

There is, of course, another much more affordable way of dealing with schools like this, while avoiding the lengthy, onerous and extremely expensive process I have described. It would be far easier to take the comparatively simple steps required to close such schools down, and re-open them under the governance of the Head of Education, until a new governing body and staff have been selected. But as we have seen before, this elicits massive resistance from some trade unions and NGOs who claim, often disingenuously, to be championing the educational rights of children. When they go to court, as they usually do in a froth of self-righteous indignation with maximum media coverage, the resultant court cases delay crucial educational reforms, sometimes for years.

But this is also no excuse. At the root of many problems in government lies the absence of a culture of accountability. Of course, I am personally accountable for the fact that, in my eight years as premier, we have not found an effective way of resolving the crisis of dysfunctional schools. I am determined to do so, whatever it takes, in the last 18 months at my disposal.

Clause 28 (2) of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights says: “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.” This applies nowhere more directly and obviously than in education. Everyone involved in the education project – teachers, officials, parents, our partners and politicians – must be driven by this injunction. Self-interest has no place in the transformation of education. DM


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