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Opinionista

SA’s children must be the critical focus of education, not the teacher unions

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Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

On nearly every measure, South Africa remains the poorest performing school system in the world per dollar spent. And yet we continue to reward underperforming and absent teachers financially for this.

World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last month, and much of the media coverage focussed on South Africa’s teacher shortage crisis, with many asking what needs to be done to produce more, and better teachers.

This shortage, driven by enrolment increases, population growth and teacher retirements, will almost certainly further increase class sizes. But there’s another issue that we aren’t discussing — and that’s the impact of the bloated public wage bill due to pay increases, irrespective of performance.

The financial strain placed on provinces is a major cause of increased class sizes, fewer middle and senior leadership appointments, and ultimately persistently low learner outcomes across the system.

Following public sector strikes in March of this year, government and trade unions concluded a pay increase agreement for just over 1.2 million public servants. Having initially requested an increase of 10%, most trade unions then accepted government’s offer to increase pay by 7.5% for the remainder of this fiscal year, and in line with the expected rate of inflation in 2024/25, capped at 6.5%.

This pay increase continued what has been a steady trend in teacher salaries over the past 15 years, aside from the pandemic (teachers received absolutely no cost-of-living adjustments between 2020 and 2022 — resulting in a salary decline in real terms, which was somewhat softened by a cash gratuity). From 2008 to 2019, teacher salaries rose by an average of 9.2% in real terms, while average inflation was only 6.3% per year.

Teacher salaries are the single largest line item in the South African budget. “In 2022, teacher salaries accounted for one-third of all public sector wages at R222-billion, approximately 3.5% of GDP and 10% of total government expenditure”. Furthermore, the average teacher in 2019 earned R42,668 per month in salary and benefits — placing teachers in the top 5% of the income distribution in South Africa.

Finally, relative to teachers in other countries South African teachers earn well too — research undertaken by Intellidex in 2020 indicated that South African “teachers’ salaries are nearly 50 per cent higher than the OECD average” and that “only Germany and Luxembourg paid teachers more”.

Before going any further, let us be clear — the issue here is not how much teachers are paid. Teaching is a complex and demanding profession, and those who undertake their work with commitment, dedication and professionalism should be rewarded adequately for doing so.

The issue is that far too many teachers are either unwilling (on any given day, one in 10 teachers won’t arrive at school, leaving 135,000 learners without a teacher) or unable (the average score for B.Ed students taking a grade 6 maths test is 54%) to do their jobs. And so, on nearly every measure, we remain the poorest performing school system in the world per dollar spent. And yet we continue to reward underperforming and absent teachers financially for this.

The bloated public sector and its excessive wage bill contribute significantly to unmanageable class sizes, fewer Head of Department (HOD) appointments and even fewer principal appointments — all of which continue to contribute to chronic underperformance and schools that are best described as “cognitive wastelands”.

And the impact of the public sector wage bill goes beyond class sizes and learner outcomes. It affects the entire country. According to leading economists, consistently excessive increases in the public sector have contributed to National Treasury running out of money — leading to provincial governments now having to absorb costs that will most certainly result in further hiring freezes, and a number of impossibly difficult trade-offs to make further cuts to already tight and shrinking budgets.

How do we resolve this?

1 Decentralise collective bargaining agreements

The stranglehold that the unions have on the budgeting process must be broken. The annual national budgeting process takes place between June and December every year, and the outcomes of the budget are tabled in Parliament the following February (National Treasury, 2022). Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are negotiated by the unions at a national level, and as a result, the provinces are effectively held to ransom and left with no choice but to absorb the public sector wage increases, which account for nearly 80% of their budgets.

CBA’s are a core driver of increased class sizes, learner-to-educator ratios and hiring freezes at a middle and senior leadership level — and therefore poor learner outcomes. Decentralising union negotiations and shifting these discussions to the provinces has the potential to mitigate this substantially.

2 Introduce performance-related pay for educators

We simply have to stop rewarding teachers who can’t or won’t teach, and begin recognising those who can, and do.

In countries with comparatively low teachers’ salaries (less than 15% above GDP per capita), the OECD found that student performance tended to be better when performance-based pay systems are in place and concluded that countries lacking the resources to pay their teachers well should consider performance-related pay schemes.

To introduce a performance-related pay scheme in South Africa, we have to ensure that learner outcomes feature prominently (they currently do not at all) in the performance targets of teachers, middle and senior leaders, principals and provincial officials. Once established, these performance targets should be tied to any further financial reward (inclusive of salary notch increases, 13th cheques and proposed CPI-related increases in excess of inflation).

3 Improve the quality of learner-performance data

Performance-related pay schemes are complex and difficult to implement. Harder still without valid, reliable and accurate data. To ensure that all our schools can set and meet realistic targets, we need valid, accurate and reliable learner-performance data at a circuit and district level that officials can readily access and utilise to deliver targeted support with their limited resources, and then follow up with rigorous monitoring and evaluation.

This means the introduction of standardised, externally evaluated assessments at regular checkpoints from Grades 1 to 12. To implement these changes effectively, national government will need to be strategic, brave and strong in introducing measures that the unions are likely to oppose. If we back down, as we did with the ANAs, we will not break free from this vicious cycle of overcompensation and underperformance.

In summary — we need to position children and their futures at the centre of education. This can help us to make the bold moves we need to, so that we can give them what they deserve.

Their current dire economic prospects should give us all the courage and conviction we need to push back on unrealistic union demands, introduce performance-related pay mechanisms and implement standardised assessments. It doesn’t have to be either/or — it can be both/and.

We can do all of this for our children, and at the same time continue to protect and preserve the rights of educators so that those who do their jobs well will continue to be rewarded, and those who don’t, won’t. DM

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