Wrong Prescription for Education ills

7 February 2013

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union fully recognises the importance of education in the development and prosperity of the country and its citizens. We welcome the fact that our government has declared education as an apex priority and a societal matter. We support and strive for quality public education. However, we don’t believe that education should be declared an essential service – writes Mugwena Maluleke, the General Secretary of SADTU.

Every production line has to undergo certain critical stages before it can come up with a complete product. These stages include the inputs, processes and the expected outcomes. Education equally has to undergo these stages before in order to produce the desired results. If any of these stages lag behind or don’t perform to their optimal, the outcome will by all means be negatively impacted.

In education, the input is made up of the qualifications of the teacher, the background of the learner and the investment in education infrastructure. The question we should ask ourselves is – are our teachers properly supported in the learning areas they teach with quality qualifications to get on with the task at hand? Are the learners properly motivated to receive what they are taught? Do they come from families or homes where they get adequate psycho-social support? Do the schools have enough conducive classrooms in terms of quantity and quality, enough teachers, learning materials, laboratories and libraries, minimum sports and recreation facilities? The answer currently is that there remain challenges.

If the input part is not adequate, surely, it will have an impact on the processing stage which is teaching and learning. For teachers to teach effectively, they must be on top of their game. That involves being highly qualified and that involves focussed lifelong teacher development. That does not exist in our education system at the moment.

Teachers are dealing with learners who come from different backgrounds where they have little influence and have to rely on parents to inculcate the culture for learning.

If this stage is not adequately dealt with, it will have an impact on the outcome.

The essentialisation of education as proposed or debated will not solve the problem because it is targeting only one component in the system – the teachers.

There is consensus that the problems faced by our education are in fact systemic in nature. For instance, there is very little that a teacher can do with a learner who faces extreme poverty and instability at home that limits their chances to learn in class. There is equally very little that teacher unions can do when learner support materials are not delivered on time or when government senior bureaucrats in the circuit, district and provincial and national offices do not deliver the support that is expected of them. In our view it would be extremely short sighted to isolate teachers’ right to strike and elevate that to main problem in our education.

We firmly believe that if problems of teacher-learner ratio, school violence, inadequate infrastructure and learning materials, under qualified teachers including at the level of Grade R can be addressed, education in South Africa will significantly improve without taking away educators’ right to strike.

Education is essential but does not meet the legal criteria of an essential service. Section 213 of the Labour Relations Act provides that a service is deemed to be an “essential service” if the interruption of that service endangers the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population. The reality is that when teaching is interrupted due to strikes, it does not endanger the life, personal safety or health of the learners. The functions performed by educators (teaching) can therefore never be classified as an “essential service”.

SADTU’s opposition on the proposal to declare education an essential service is also in compliance with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The 1966 ILO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations recognises and protects educators’ right to strike. This right to strike is also enshrined in our own Constitution.

In terms of these ILO conventions, workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment. Workers further have the right to organise and to bargain collectively free from interference from administration.

This call for education to be declared an essential service is not new. In 2011, the Democratic Alliance made an application to the ESC to have education declared an essential service. This application was turned down by the ESC on the basis of the law as it stands currently. It is evident that as the South African Law stands, education is not an essential service, due to the binding nature of the ILO conventions as well as in compliance with the current definition of ‘essential service’. Enforcing education to be an essential service has been met with resistance even internationally. In Argentina, a ministerial promulgation declaring state and private education to be essential services was declared unlawful by the ILO Freedom of Association Committee, which indicated that the education sector does not constitute an essential service in the strict sense of the term. This was after the Confederation of Education Workers of Argentina and the Latin American Federation of Workers in Education and Culture levelled allegations against the Government of Argentina that there was a violation of the right to strike of education workers by virtue of the promulgation.

Most of the propagators for essentialisation have one thing in mind – it is going to put an end to strikes for the better improvement of education in South Africa. No scientific argument has been presented to prove that strikes lead to poor education. Whenever, SADTU members embark on strikes, we come up with catch-up programmes to compensate for the time lost.

The suggestion to declare education an essential service gives an impression that organised labour prefers industrial action over all other mechanisms as a solution to dispute resolution and strike at the drop of a hat. That however is very far from the truth; our reality is that the “no work, no pay” principle hits very hard on our members’ pockets and a decision to strike is never taken easily. Such a decision is often taken as the last resort and after we had exhausted all other possible avenues. We are after all the working class and when circumstances compel us, we have nothing but our labour to withdraw since we do not own the means of production.

SADTU is committed to improving education in South Africa and we affirm our unequivocal commitment to the Quality Learning and teaching Campaign (QLTC). SADTU calls all stake holders in education, namely, teachers, parents, learners and government to work together to improve education as it is evident from various studies that teacher strikes are not the only factor that negatively contributes to the alleged crisis in education.

The community should recognize that “quality education” is more than education without interruption. Quality education is found in a system that pays salaries that attract good qualified educators in sufficient numbers. It requires manageable class sizes, qualified teachers, appropriate infrastructure, adequate learning materials, safe and appropriate classrooms and sport facilities. Prohibiting teachers to strike will not only hurt teachers but the education system as a whole as teachers also bargain for improvements in the education of the country. The current minimum norms and standards framework as published by the Department of Basic Education is an insult to our people and further shows how the discredited Director General fails the State President in his quest to improve the quality of education.

It is our view that the proposal to declare education an essential service in order to give effect to section 29 of the Constitution is aimed at undermining educators’ right to strike and interfering with the right to collective bargaining. Even if the educators’ right to strike may be curtailed, we do not believe that the right to basic education would be fully achieved if “the stages of the production line” are not fully equipped to ensure a quality outcome.

The debate also questions the need for collective bargaining for teachers because they argue that collective bargaining is incompatible with professionalism. Our critics argue that efforts to improve compensations and working conditions for teachers compromise learner achievement. The debate also seeks to assert that Unions raise the costs of education, thereby draining resources away from INPUTS that raise achievement. Clearly this argument fails to appreciate that teachers` qualifications which include teacher development and conditions are the primary INPUTS for quality education and the improvement of the teaching process and therefore can`t be categorized as costs but investment. We have to encourage recruitment and retention of teachers in the system for improved learner achievement.

Mugwena Maluleke is the General Secretary of South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU)

An edited version of the above article appeared in the Sunday Independent on 3 February 2013