Durban - Teacher
unions in KwaZulu-Natal have become so powerful that they’ve not only been stifling the authority of school principals, but have been controlling the education system, a new study has found.
Researchers from the UKZN said this was damaging pupils and might be the reason some were failing “year in, year out”.
The research paper, yet to be published, was co-authored by Thamsanqa Bhengu, Siphiwe Mthiyane and Inbanathan Naicker – of the university’s School of Education.
A synopsis of their paper – titled “Chronicling the barriers to teaching and learning in schools of KwaZulu-Natal” – was presented at the South African Research Association conference in Durban on Wednesday.
The study drew mixed reaction from unions, with the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) rejecting it as “baseless”.
And the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, which hit out at the researchers for “ambushing” the principals, warned them “to desist from this practice of hounding our educators”.
The researchers said they had consulted more than 200 school principals who had attended a leadership seminar at the university, and from the responses of about 70 of them who took part in a survey and further interviews, concluded that unions were abusing their influence to the detriment of principals and pupils.
Citing an example, they said instituting disciplinary action for routine transgressions such as teachers arriving late for school usually led to a tussle between the union and the department – with the union often winning.
This, they said, has led to teachers ignoring the department and listening to the unions, a situation that impacted negatively on pupils.
Some principals faced a serious dilemma in that they were union members too, and were forced to allow situations they did not agree with.
Mthiyane told the Daily News that six high school principals who were “comprehensively interviewed” for the research had said they were afraid of the unions and were forced to allow teachers to leave pupils in the lurch to attend union meetings or gatherings.
The principals had said that while they were happy that unions were fighting for their rights as employees of the department, the “flipside to it was that they seem to have destroyed education”.
“Some people are even saying our education has gone to the dogs… because of the power of the unions,” Mthiyane said.
He said one principal from Inchanga had said that he was also a union member, but was afraid of his union colleagues, because if he did not release the teachers for meetings they would say: “Hey comrade, have you changed, are you still part of us, or are you part of the system?”
“I’m not sure whether it is to disrupt the system or make it ungovernable.
“I don’t know what it is, but they are very afraid of their own structure, the teacher union,” Mthiyane said.
“We are suggesting that there must be some kind of a Codesa… the department and the unions must begin to speak in the same language.
“Right now they are speaking two different languages, where teachers on the ground understand unions to be saying one thing, while the (department) is saying something else.”
The contestation between the department, school principals and the teacher unions, he said, was affecting pupils the most and might be a reason many did not pass matric.
“The impact is a negative one in the sense that if teachers are not teaching, pupils are not going to benefit by going to school. Obviously, then, the pupils who we promote from one grade to the next, by the time they get to matric, they will not be ready to tackle the demands of the matric class.
“These are the type of pupils we see failing, year in, year out, and eventually what this will mean is that our country will not achieve the type of goals we aspire to achieve, especially the National Development Plan.”
Mthiyane said though the criticism of the teacher unions was warranted, there was still a space for them to exist, but they needed to change their ways.
“We advocated for unions (during apartheid); we are still advocating for unions today, but the manner in which they operate has to change,” he said.
“We have a situation in education where the tail is wagging the dog. How do we have a situation where the unions are telling the department what to do and what not to do?”
Mthiyane said though it was tough to be a school principal in KZN, there were many principals who were skilled negotiators who managed to produce good results despite the contestation.
“The unions are there, they are a part of our academic life and there is nothing we can do about that, but at the same time, we need to have maximum benefit out of them as there is so much that they are doing that is very good, and we support and applaud that, but our principals must have the negotiating skills that will allow them to prosper,” he said.
“Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves about those schools is the question of leadership.
“These schools – Menzi High, Velabahleke High, Adams College, Ogwini Comprehensive, and the like – they are different, they are unique, these are principled principals who show exemplary leadership.
“If you go to VB (Velabahleke), the principal is the last person to leave school every day and he is first to arrive there at 5am.
“Very few principals are willing to do that, and as a result those kids at those schools attain good results,” Mthiyane said.
“If you have quality leadership, it will rub off (on) the teachers and on to the pupils, that is what the research we have done is showing.”
Good principals worked with teachers, pupil leadership and the school governing body, he said.