Policy is lacking people power

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PRIORITIES: Sadtu members in Ormonde, Joburg during the teachers strike in 2010. Teachers and the ANC are betraying themselves if they do not develop concrete strategies to make teacher unions a central part of education quality improvement, says the writer. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

What the ANC has to say about education in its policy proposals (and hence at its policy conference this year) will seriously impact on the quality of education, as well as the lives of young South Africans for years to come.

We do not need to remind readers that the ANC is in government; nor that education is widely acknowledged to be in crisis, and thus needs extensive fixing.

Sadly, little of this is apparent in the draft policy documents. Indeed, though education is listed as national priority number one in various government statements, one would struggle to notice this. Most surprisingly, for a political movement especially, politics is virtually absent from the drafts.

We are not talking factions here. Where are the people? How can a political movement, even one that wins election after election, virtually not mention the role of a mobilised and organised people in the search for solutions?

Education fails to give young people foundations of reading and counting, as recent tests have shown. Poor basics lead to insufficient high-level skills for a developing nation, a shortage of scientists, accountants, lawyers, business people, let alone artists and poets to interpret our transition.

Plumbers and electricians find a weak and uneven FET vocational system.

All this takes a racial form, where white kids mostly pass matric and some 60 percent go on to university. Less than 50 percent of black kids make it through high school and only 12-15 percent go on to further study. We as adults are failing the new non-racial generations that expect this democracy to work for them, to create opportunities so that all can fly.

This absence is most apparent in the absence of the young themselves. It is surely around our children that education revolves? As we approach June 16 and beyond, we should be aware of the role that young people have played in our freedom, of sacrifices from 1976 to “liberation before education” and then “people’s education for people’s power”. The blood of the young, terrible beatings, detentions, and death, with schools at the heart of these sacrifices, signal our pathways to freedom.

Today, the disciplined actions of equal education and their calls for libraries in all schools, for minimum norms and standards, should alert us to the role that the young continue to play.

For years, the ANC and the internal mass democratic movement, in formations such as the UDF and the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), took care of the schools’ kids and engaged carefully with the concerns of the Congress of SA Students (Cosas).

We cannot meet the young only in disciplinary committees when it is too late.

In 1981 Cosas was among the first to adopt the Freedom Charter with its startling promise that the “doors of learning and culture shall be open to all”.

Second, surely something needs to be said about teachers? There is no need to adopt the simplistic rhetoric of Helen Zille or Adcorp for the banning of teacher unions, which operate and even strike all over the world. Accountability and management are essential for teachers, as well as officials, principals and even politicians.

The SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has a proud history. It is a middle-class organisation that has an inordinate influence in the ANC and union movement.

So it should. It organises close to 240 000 of about 390 000 teachers in the public sector. As a giant, it could do much to advance struggles around education.

Sadtu’s current focus, largely on the immediate negotiating needs of its members, its use of real backlogs and problems only to make excuses for its work, belie its proud origins and negate the crucial contribution it should be making.

Teachers and the ANC are betraying themselves if they do not develop strategies to make teacher unions a central part of education quality change.

It is good that policy drafts remind us of progress that has indeed been made. School feeding schemes, a single national exam and a non-racial education system are not to be scoffed at. Yet a vision for education, calls for excellence and for hard work to create a learning nation are severely lacking.

To encourage arts, sports, debating, let alone better achievement in maths and literacy at foundation phases, we will have to look elsewhere: certainly beyond government’s interesting Action Plan 2014 or the NPC or ANC policy proposals.

What is the role of parents and communities? Civil society is not there simply to implement government plans. There is no understanding of how partnerships will be built, of how communities will discover their voices and fight for the rights of their children, or put pressure on failing provincial governments that neglect to deliver textbooks or rebuild mud schools or allocate teachers to where they are needed, let alone pay them their due.

So we may tackle the ANC on detail. Draft resolutions for a new state publishing company may reduce costs or the pernicious influence of publishers: but it is hard to set up and can distract from priorities.

Free education for university students, with real needs for increased access especially by the poor, may come at the cost of basics or burden future generations.

Language parity is essential. Of course, Chinese students learn in Chinese, Arabic students in Arabic. English is not always superior. Do we start with teacher training, with textbooks, how will we encourage a reading culture among adults and youth? Why is ICT use so limited; how will we tackle the corporates?

How will we get there, beyond rhetoric? What are concrete plans, how will they be implemented, how will we pay? Without jobs, what is the meaning of education? There is not even a genuflection to poverty and inequality that holds us all back.

There is much work to be done.


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