OVERCROWDING: Manyano High School in Khayelitsha where one class takes more than 80 pupils  		Picture: Michael Pinyana
OVERCROWDING: Manyano High School in Khayelitsha where one class takes more than 80 pupils Picture: Michael Pinyana

The ruling party and teacher unions have butted heads over the classification of education as an essential service. While both make strong arguments, it is often in debating education policies that we tend to forget that the most important players in education are the children.

The key points to remember in this debate are, while teacher strikes impact heavily on a child’s right to education, conditions for teaching and learning environments in many schools are not up to par and also prevent children from accessing this right.

In 2008 the Department of Education released audit results that showed that more than 6 000 schools in the country had an average class size of 45 pupils. This was 10 pupils more than the required teacher-to-pupil ratio. Even more alarming was the 2011 survey by the Human Rights Commission which showed that 40 percent of pupils had been victims of violence.

That same study showed that teachers also felt threatened at school.

These challenges, together with teacher absenteeism, severely infringe on a child’s ability to access quality education. It has been widely documented that pupils who are unaffected by strikes perform better than pupils whose learning is disrupted.

Class disruptions not only increase the number of pupils repeating grades, but also reduce the chance of pupils reaching higher education. This, in turn, impacts on our economy, as academically unqualified citizens are less likely to be employed in high-earning jobs that would allow them to contribute as tax payers.

It is interesting to note that the issue of teacher strikes and its impact on pupils is not unique to South Africa. This very debate took place in the US last year when teachers downed tools to protest against a motion that would close poor-performing schools and reopen them with new staff or hand them over to private entities.

Though we cannot compare the education environment of the US with that of ours, what is remarkable is the amount of press coverage given to the impact the seven-day strike would have on pupils.

We have, over the years, become desensitised to the severity of the impact a teacher’s absence has on a child’s learning. From strikes to bunking, absent teachers are not giving children their required access to structured learning.

At this point we also need to consider the reasons why teachers strike. While salaries are often the reason for protest marches, teachers are also frustrated with poor working conditions, limited resources and poor levels of learning.

Many children in the public system are not able to cope in their grades and are passed from one teacher to the other without the child’s problem being assessed and addressed. Given the teacher-to-pupil ratio in many of these classrooms, teachers are unable to give children the required individual attention to improve. In the work done by Cotlands with vulnerable children, we have found that children from low-income areas are at a greater disadvantage because they are years behind developmentally. This is largely owing to the lack of foundation phase learning, poor nutrition and inadequate access to resources at an early age.

To correct our past mistakes and give the next generation of pupils a fair shot at our education system, we need to get back to basics: early childhood development.

More than 83 percent of children do not access any form of structured early childhood learning. Of the 17 percent that do access early childhood development centres, more than half have limited access to proper sanitation, inadequate access to stimulating resources or activities, and are exposed to less than hygienic environments. In our research we have found that in township and rural areas, early childhood development centres are few and far between and, even if there is a facility nearby, most families cannot afford to send their children to these centres.

Another problem frequently encountered with communities is that often the primary care-givers of our beneficiaries see no value in engaging with them in their early years. Children are often left without active stimulation or supervision until they reach Grade R. However, according to a study conducted by the UN in 2011, pupil-to-teacher ratios at this stage are already too high and that by this stage it is also too late.

“A large number of schools have teacher-pupil ratios in excess of 40 in Grade R. Class sizes of this magnitude are problematic and do not meet the needs of early childhood development,” Unicef maintains.

Children with learning difficulties and/or disabilities are marginalised as resources for those with special needs are scarce in low-income areas. It is imperative that we tackle the issue of early childhood learning with great urgency. If we, as a society, do not address the problem that lies before us, we too contribute to infringement of the rights of thousands of children.

With limited resources, children in rural and township areas have little chance of competing academically or in the job market with those from more affluent regions. Children who do not receive access to learning opportunities early on will almost always be at a disadvantage and need to “play catch-up” throughout their academic years.

These statistics and facts have impelled Cotlands to champion the right to early education for all children in South Africa. The basic principal is simple: children start their learning journey through play. For us it is essential that we create access to resources that will develop those skills needed for later learning and we do this through well-crafted play sessions or play with purpose. Cotlands has a programme using play sessions for children who do not have access to early childhood development centres. These play sessions are conducted by community care-givers who are supported by local toy libraries. Community care-givers borrow toys from their nearest Cotlands Toy Library and present play sessions at a community centre.

Through this community-based programme children who attend play sessions are given the opportunity to use a wide range of educational toys that their primary care-givers would not ordinarily be able to afford.

We offer this essential service free to community children along with a nutrition programme that addresses yet another imperative right. Once these crucial developmental years are addressed, teacher strikes will have less of an impact on vulnerable children.

While education is essential, declaring it an essential service to merely prevent teachers from striking without addressing the key problems serves no purpose. It is crucial that the government works toward reducing the teacher-to-pupil ratio, create facilities for children with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, increase access to early childhood development centres and address sanitation and nutrition at schools.

Declaring education an essential service does not negate our responsibility to provide children with quality education. It is important that we strengthen the fabric of our society by allowing children access to the rights set out in our constitution.

l Jackie Schoeman is the chief executive of Cotlands, an NGO that focuses on pre-school preparedness for disadvantaged children, based in Turffontein Johannesburg, but operating in six provinces.