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The Right to Basic Education and the Green Paper

One of the priorities of the new administration is education. This is as it should be. Without a functioning basic education system in place the sustainability of the democratic project in the country, and indeed peace, progress and prosperity are all endangered. The modern economy needs well educated young blood and the education system must be geared to provide appropriately qualified personnel. As only 3.5% of the black learners who started school in 1996 emerged twelve years later both functionally literate and with a matriculation certificate, there is much work to be done.The decision to split the old Ministry of Education at national level into two, one for basic education and the other for tertiary education is an indication of how seriously the plight of the education system is being taken by those in authority at the highest policy making level. The basic education ministry is for the primary and secondary schools systems. These areas need to be the focus of remedial measures sorely required to restore the constitutionally guaranteed right to basic education to all who seek to exercise it, whether through schools or adult literacy training programmes which are tailor made to the needs of communities who were in the past deprived of the type of basic educational opportunities which the new dispensation obliges government to respect, protect, promote and fulfill.

It needs to be noted that basic education is given a special place in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most socio-economic rights, the right to basic education is not one which is hedged about with qualifications relating to its provision “within [the state’s] available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of this right” as is the case with housing, health care, food, water and social security. This is also as it should be. The rights of children enjoy pride of place, or, in the words of the Constitution “a child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.” Basic education, including adult basic education is everyone’s constitutionally conferred right, further education (beyond basic education) is to be made progressively available and accessible.

At the risk of emphasizing the obvious, the Constitution is the supreme law and any conduct inconsistent with it is invalid. Obligations, such as the obligation to provide basic education, imposed by the Constitution in the Bill of Rights must be fulfilled.

One of the innovations of the Zuma era is the introduction of a ministry for performance management, monitoring and evaluation. The first incumbent Minister is Collins Chabane. He has introduced a Policy Document or Green Paper titled “Improving Government Performance: Our Approach.” This is a means of putting flesh on the bones of the various priorities of government, including education. Indeed, basic education is chosen as an example in the chapter called “How will the outcomes performance management system work?” Basic education has been so chosen “because it impacts on the lives of 12 million people and their families, uses 20% of our non interest expenditure, and is a recognized priority. A functional and good education system is the only common feature of all successful countries.” This is according to the paragraph introducing the example of the performance management system which the Presidency has in mind.

This example outlines the steps in the process envisaged in respect of basic education: the politically agreed outcome will be to improve the quality of basic education, this refers specifically to grades R to 9 with similar measures for the rest of the system. So far so good: basic education clearly goes all the way to grade 12 and a “bottom up” approach is being followed. The outcome measures desired are an improvement in the pass rates at grade 3, 6 and 9 levels as measured in an independently moderated annual test for all students in those grades over a five year term.

The Green Paper then proceeds to list the key activities “without which the output will not be met” as “Teachers in class on time teaching 7 hours a day. National workbooks distributed to 80% of the schools. Curriculum coverage must be 100% of the workbooks and be measured once a year in every school.”

Presumably the reference to “every school” can only mean those schools lucky enough to be in receipt of the national workbooks. Those (20 %) which do not receive workbooks can hardly be expected to achieve 100% coverage of material not delivered to them and which the performance management system has no intention of delivering to them. By not so delivering an infringement of the right to basic education of all learners who are in the “left out” fifth of the public schools inevitably occurs. The workbooks are further identified as “essential inputs” called “only those that form part of the delivery chain for the outputs”. Interestingly, seven core textbooks for all grade 10 – 12 learners and two for 80% of grades 1, 2 and 3; five for 80% of grades 4, 5, 6 and 7 are identified as essential inputs. Inexplicably there are no essential inputs listed for grades 8 and 9. [The age at which learners know everything perhaps?] However, grade 9, along with grades 3 and 6, will be expected to undergo independently moderated tests.

This delivery chain will be developed into a detailed delivery agreement at a forum of the key delivery institutions at all levels of government and with any external partners. The identified outcome, outputs, activities and inputs form the core of the performance agreement between the President, the Minister and the education sector. The President will confirm his delivery requirements by letter to the Council of Education ministers and will ask for a report on progress every six months.

It is unfortunate that this half baked example has been chosen to illustrate what the new ministry is intended to achieve. It beggars belief that anyone in Government regards it as acceptable that 20% of schools up to grade 10 level are expected to deliver basic education without the workbooks essential to the task. There is no logical way in which leaving grades 8 and 9 out of the essential inputs loop can be justified nor can the sudden distribution of seven core textbooks to all (instead of 80%, as in the lower levels) grades 10, 11 and 12, transform those who have previously had no workbooks in the lower grades into full participants in the basic education system.

The entire process proposed by Minister Chabane appears to overlook that the Constitution does not countenance the discriminatory practice of leaving 1 in 5 schools out of the loop when it comes to delivery of national workbooks as an essential part of the provision of basic education. Nor is there any reasonable explanation for simply leaving out 20% of schools. How are those left out to be identified? What criteria will be used? What possible justification can there be for not distributing national workbooks to all schools? Why suddenly start to do so from grade 10 level?

All that can be anticipated with any degree of certainty is that the 20% of schools to which no workbooks are distributed will not be able to contribute fully to the envisaged outcome of an improvement in the quality of basic education, this even if the seven core textbooks for grades 10 to 12 do find their way into these schools. The performance management system as outlined in the Green Paper seems doomed to continue to contribute to the toxic mix in education. It could so easily be changed to enhance the delivery of the right to basic education by adopting a constitutionally compliant framework.

Paul Hoffman SC
October 2009

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