Education system rewards under-achievement
25 April 2019
The department of education’s 2017/2018 monitoring report was released at the beginning of April. Following this report, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga admitted that the education system is dysfunctional, with 10% of teachers absent from school every single day.
A recent report by the International Monetary Fund contained similar findings. It indicated that the bulk of the country’s public schools are in a dismal state. Both reports emphasized the high rate of absenteeism and inadequate subject knowledge amongst teachers as some of the leading causes of South Africa’s failing public education system.
On the other hand, some schools excel academically, irrespective of the socio-economic conditions of the school community, thanks to diligent and knowledgeable educators that are not put off by the prospect of spending long hours at school and often working overtime.
Melanie Buys, Head of Development at the Support Centre for Schools (SCS), looks at some of the reasons for this discrepancy in academic achievement.
Different learning cultures
Access to education is no longer an issue in South Africa. The issue lies in the lack of access to well-functioning schools where diligent and qualified teachers are present in the classroom.
Learners flourish in schools where teachers are qualified, hard-working and dedicated and expect the same diligence and discipline from their learners. These schools are in stark contrast to schools where up to 30% of the teachers are absent on Fridays or at month-end, and where teachers do not prepare adequately for lessons and refuse to attend training to broaden their knowledge.
An efficient learning culture does not only depend on money and resources; it is just as dependent on a school’s tradition of good governance, involvement of the parent community and a culture of excellence. When children enter a school culture that demands and supports excellence, they work to fit into that culture, irrespective of what their background is. Mbilwe Secondary School and Thengwe Secondary School, two schools situated in extremely poor communities in rural Limpopo, annually achieve top results in Mathematics and Science in the province. Teachers at these schools do not have smart boards or expensive classrooms, but they are proud of their school and work overtime to achieve good results.
According to Motshekga, it is acceptable for 10% of the country’s 41 000 teachers to be absent every day, as it is supposedly in line with international standards.
The Personnel Administration Measures (PAM), however, determines that an educator should deliver at least 1800 hours of service to the school every year. On average, the school year consists of 200 days. This means that South African teachers should spend nine hours on school work every day, consisting of six hours in class and another three hours on the sports field, preparing for lessons or marking assessments.
Teachers who spend less than 3,5 hours at school each day break their formal conditions of employment and the department of education should act against such educators.
A survey among SCS member schools indicated that only 2% of educators at these academically sound / well-performing schools are absent on a monthly basis. Teachers at these schools walk the extra mile by coaching sports after school, organizing extra-curricular activities and offering extra classes outside of school hours.
Qualified, hard-working teachers employed by the state earn the same salary as absent teachers at underperforming schools where no extra-circular activities are offered. The fact that the education authorities do not expect the same outcomes from all teachers, encourages the idea that hard work is optional and not mandatory to earn a decent salary.
Inadequate subject knowledge
The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. It is thus worrying that the IMF report published in March 2019 found that 5% of learners have a better understanding and knowledge of some subjects than 20% of their educators who teach that subject. Fortunately, there is another side to this matter: When members of the SCS’ Association for Afrikaans Mathematics Teachers wrote the preliminary mathematics exams in 2017, they achieved an average of 98%! These teachers’ outstanding subject knowledge can be attributed to continuous personal development and high-quality training that they willingly subject themselves to.
Politically driven teacher unions
Motshekga is reluctant to blame the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) for the underperformance of some teachers. Unfortunately, SADTU protects underperforming, incompetent teachers against justified disciplinary action, and even discourages its members to undergo professional training, at the expense of quality education. The strong presence of politicly motivated teacher unions makes it almost impossible to hold underperforming teachers accountable.
Motshekga is only partially correct when she blames school principals’ lack of discipline for the poor quality of education in our schools. Ron Berger, well known education expert and author of the book An Ethic of Excellence, stresses that a good example is crucial in the transferring of values:
“The process of schooling itself imbues values. If we want citizens who value integrity, respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work, we need to build school cultures that model those attributes.”
The Institute of Race Relations’ report of 2018 underlined this by stating that the school principal is the key to a school’s success. “He/she sets the tone, motivates the teachers, secures support of parents, enforces rules and is accountable for its finances.”
When school principals do try to take action against inept teachers employed by the state, they experience severe opposition from SADTU and get little support from the department of education. Consequently, disciplinary action is seldom successful, and offenders remain or are reinstated in their positions. In addition, suspended offenders are often paid in full while sitting at home, waiting for the matter to run its course.
School principals can only be held accountable for educators’ poor performance if they have the authority to act against absent, inefficient teachers.
Minister Motshekga admits that many educators do not cope or pull their weight, but she fails to provide a workable answer to address the problem. Since the quality of an education system is just as good as that of its educators, the solution is simple: Get rid of incompetent educators in the system and reward and encourage good performance. Recruit the best students to study education and ensure that these young students receive excellent training. Only teachers with a passion for teaching and a heart for their learners will be able to reverse the negative spiral of poverty for future generations and put South Africa on the road to success.
Melanie Buys is Head of Development at the Support Centre for Schools.