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Every so often, while on the way to the office, I would stop at the department of education’s district office, which covers Lenasia, Soweto and surrounds to ask the assembled workers why they were protesting. I would quiz the workers about their demands. To be clear, there are times when ‘wild cat’ strikes are needed and obviously there were deeper issues under the surface that needed to be addressed. However, I always left with a deep sense of disappointment that the children were being failed.
The Gauteng Education Department’s intention to host an education summit in Soweto is thus an important development. The background to the summit is a pattern of ‘wild cat’ strikes, ineffective management of the district, a limited and ineffective role for parents and students and the deep politicisation of public service delivery.
Underlying these dynamics is a set of accusations. On the one hand, community members argue, that the unions have taken over the schools and are protecting corrupt teachers who shirk their responsibilities. On the other hand, some unions argue that the management of the district is ineffective and that administrative decisions are unfair, and have an adverse effect on them. Both versions of the story have elements of truth, but offer little by way of solutions.
Clearly this set of circumstances cannot continue if decent schooling is to be established in Soweto.
After a long period of silence, the Gauteng Provincial Government and the provincial leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) are finally seeking to resolve the issue.
Observing the intervention by government is instructive, as it is has emphasised two ideas.
First, the expression “teachers should be in school teaching” has gone viral in what young people call “Southside,” meaning the south of Johannesburg. Leaders have tapped into the deep frustration in these communities that schooling is deteriorating in their areas. More to the point, government leaders are finally taking a strong stance, indicating that due legal processes will follow if teaching is disrupted.
This is significant because politicians have become accustomed to rhetorical attacks on teaching without knuckling down to tackle the thorny power structures that permit poor education to continue. The example of the intervention in Soweto suggests an important shift from rhetoric to the much-needed day-to-day political work required to create the conditions for effective education to become a reality. Provincial authorities and political leaders have recently not just been vocal, but have started to get their hands dirty dealing with ineffective administrative systems and emphasising that there is a requirement that “teachers teach.”
Second, government is focussing on a process of social dialogue with an education summit planned in the near future. The process of setting up the summit itself has been the subject of numerous meetings with several challenges being thrown up. However, all said and done, the process, which has had to mediate the power relations that have underpinned under-performing schools, is on track. Importantly, the national leadership of trade unions and school governing bodies have supported the process agreeing to participate in and implement an intervention programme.
This promising effort for building effective schooling however faces a significant public policy challenge. There are schools in areas like Lenasia, Ennerdale and Soweto that were once centres of excellence, but today are mediocre. At the same time, a small number of schools in informal settlements are thriving despite tough and trying conditions.
What factors make schools, once excellent, become mediocre and others that look like they should be failing, succeed?
Research on performance at the school level emphasises structural and other factors.
The structural focus on education emphasizes that there is a correlation between school performance and poverty levels in a community, arguing a devastating conclusion: democratic South Africa is failing children in poorer communities. In a publication that assesses socio-economic transformation in South Africa, Stephen Taylor and Derek Yu, aptly capture this perspective arguing, “Being poor is a serious disadvantage educationally, but going to a school where poor students are concentrated is even more disadvantageous.”
School level research highlights the importance of effective management and the need for motivated and committed staff in schools. It argues that significant improvements in schooling can be achieved by improving management and accountability at the local level. This is supported by evidence that a small band of schools in poorer areas are providing good quality education under extremely difficult conditions.
In this context, the process in Soweto schools has national importance as it asks demanding questions of all parties involved and potentially serves as a best practice case. In fact, there are strong possibilities for a good outcome and focussed implementation measures.
Key amongst this is the fact that all the major parties have recognised that there is a crisis in education. The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has for instance taken the unprecedented step of voicing support for the process at a national level as well as supporting their regional structures to participate in the process. It provides a tangible commitment to an earlier declaration by all teachers’ unions to commit to improving education. More to the point, the provincial leadership of the ANC have provided political support to the Department of Education to see this difficult process to its conclusion.
The message is important because it indicates that political interventions are available to support the process. To put it bluntly, the political environment to tackle the underlying conditions has been a long time coming, but is finally in place.
The process will have profound implications for the role of trade unionism in the public service. The SADTU general secretary is for instance quoted asking an important question, “Are we investing in political administration or in education?”
South Africa currently spends a significant share of its expenditure on education and the question being posed focuses attention on how effectively money is being spent. Its deeper import is that it indicates that trade unions are grappling with issues of educational performance and asking demanding questions. This is precisely the sort of “transformative unionism” needed.
Potentially, trade unions could play a significant role asking tough questions on public policy and, at the same time, partner with government and communities to undertake bold experiments in improving education. Significantly, civil society organisations like Equal Education and parent’s organisations are beginning to have their voices heard and will benefit from a process that is more local and focussed on the specifics of an area.
There is thus hope that a process to improve education and address the tough political and public policy questions may finally be emerging. The process remains nascent and requires extensive support. The long term potential is the development of a model that brings role players together in a process of implementation. South Africa needs such examples especially in districts that perform poorly. The process in Soweto may just provide the start that we need.
This article was first published under creative commons license on South African Civil Society Information Service website.