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Truly Professional Teachers Are Needed Now

Basic education, the process of learning and teaching the applicable curricula in our public schools up to matric level, inescapably occurs in the classroom, not in the 27,000 principals’ offices, not in the management offices of departments of education and not in our legislatures, be they national or provincial. This self-evident fact is not accorded the prominence it deserves as hands are wrung and heads are scratched whenever justifiable concern is expressed about the parlous state of our basic education system. Certainly, it would be nice for teachers to have appropriate pedagogical, social and administrative support from all available sources to help teachers to teach. Hungry, frightened and abandoned children from dysfunctional and impoverished communities do not make great scholars, but in the few properly organised and well led schools that, against all the odds, do exist in poorer areas, they are able to match the most well endowed schools when it comes to achieving 100% matric pass rates. The misguided “rationalization of the teaching corps” which was ushered in with the new SA and the widespread incidence of deployment of unsuitable party political cadres in the education system have seen to it that not much teacher support is in fact available in the system. Teachers are generally not up to standard especially in rural and township schools. This is publicly acknowledged by those who should know. The suggestions that the IQMS (Integrated Quality Management System) and improved continuing teacher training might be the answer to this problem have long been laughed off as unattainable for so long as teacher unions are allowed to run amok.

The State (not the public) has the constitutional obligation to provide basic education to all. No ifs, no buts. There are values and principles which guide the public administration that need to be given greater attention when it comes to the standards of teaching that have been, at least in part, responsible for what Graeme Bloch calls “The Toxic Mix” in our education system in his book of eponymous title. Some of these constitutionally prescribed principles bear mention:

1. A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained.
2. Efficient, economic and effective use of resources, including human resources, must be promoted.
3. Accountability and transparency must be fostered and
4. Good human resource management and career development practices, to maximise human potential, must be cultivated.

None of these is conspicuous by its presence in public schools around the country. In particular in the township and rural schools, teachers are not “on task” as they should be, abuse of learners is rampant, resources are wasted or misspent or absent and proper accountability to parents and society has been lost in a tangle of union activity which Bloch asserts has given the unions a bad name.

The crux of the matter is that the structures, lines of authority and occupation specific pay dispensation simply do not add up to a sound (or “good” in the words of the Constitution) human resource management system for our teachers.

To be called “good” the human resource management system ought to be able to achieve the following:

1. A way of keeping the qualified teachers in the system and functioning optimally.
2. A means of fairly but firmly weeding out those teachers who are unsuitable whether by reason of lack of professionalism, misconduct, failure to upgrade outdated qualifications or inability to teach classes in a way that adequately prepares learners for the next grade and ultimately for matric.
3. The establishment of a structure in which the highly professional nature of the services rendered by teachers is given its proper place and they are accorded the authority and space in which to interact in the workplace with learners, peers, managers and parents in a professional manner.
4. A reconsideration of the occupation specific dispensation in regard to teachers pay, which at present is skewed and unaffordable, and for which there is inadequate funding.

While it is necessary to acknowledge that before 1994 there were disparities of the grossest kind in the various education departments run on racial and homeland lines, the dumbing down of the system that has taken place over the last 15 years has not been conducive to the promotion and delivery of quality education. Indeed, basic education is not being delivered on a grand scale, so much so that public schools may justifiably be likened to a huge baby sitting service in which only the lucky few emerge with a basic education, a matric certificate and, sometimes, functional literacy. Of the 1,2 million black learners who started school in 1996 only 278,000 achieved a pass in matric, and of these only 42,000 were functionally literate. This is not good enough.

In short, what is needed is a means of re-empowering teachers to take their rightful place in society as the custodians of the mother of all professions. This will require a complete overhaul of the human resource management methods and structures that are at present in place. It must be an enforceable obligation of each teacher to teach her or his class in such a way that the class is adequately prepared for the curriculum of the year ahead. If this does not take place, consequences in the form of remedial action and, if all else fails, dismissal for incompetence, should follow. The best person to determine whether a class has been properly taught is the teacher who has that class in the following year. If teachers mark the final tests at year end of the learners they will teach in the following year the charade that is the IQMS can be thrown out, it is not achieving much anyway with its inaccurate, ineffective and invidious peer review mechanisms. The methods that are used to promote teachers also need to be revised in a way that supports their professionalism and encourages young people to enter the profession in sufficient numbers to suitably reduce the unacceptable teacher/learner ratios in most schools.

Looking more closely at what has happened and what needs to happen now to the education system in public schools from a human resource management point of view, it is plain that a return to basics is the appropriate way to move to a more viable and constitutionally sound way of arranging a functional system.

The education example in the Collins Chabane green paper is not an auspicious start. Basic education is a right that has been due and claimable by all since the dawn of democracy; it is NOT subject to progressive realisation as the green paper suggests. Accordingly it is simply not on to organise workbooks for anything less than 100% of the learners in public schools if unfair discrimination is to be avoided. Finally, it is lamentable to overlook grades 8 and 9 in the manner in which the green paper does.

Joining Bloch in blaming apartheid for the shocking state of non-delivery of the right to basic education in SA in 2010 is about as useful and as relevant as blaming the struggle slogan calling for “liberation before education” for our current woes. There has been more than enough time to adjust for and overcome both of these aberrations; that we have not done so does us no credit and jeopardizes the future of the country.

Paul Hoffman SC
January 2010

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