“Education departments like speaking to individual schools, but not to organisations representing the interests of larger school communities.” Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)
“Education departments like speaking to individual schools, but not to organisations representing the interests of larger school communities.” Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Only way to change state of SA education is for school communities to get together

By Brian Isaacs Time of article published May 28, 2021

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I am often asked whether organisations outside the National Department of Basic Education influence education for the better?

In 1994, philosopher and educationist, the late Neville Alexander, said we have a small window period in which the citizens could influence educational policy in our country. He was spot on.

During the first two years after 1994, many inputs were made. Progressive organisations such as the Teachers’ League of South Africa called for a non-racial educational system, free education and the elimination of private schools and model C schools.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union, which was in alliance with the ruling ANC, agreed to a national pupil/teacher ratio of 40:1 in 1996.

The Western Cape Parent Teacher Student Forum (WCPTSF) was born in 1996 to fight the retrenchment of 20 000 teachers across the country – 9 000 of them in the Western Cape.

Brian O’Connel was Western Cape Education Department Head of Education at the time. He supported the rationalisation of teachers, saying education, in general, would benefit from this. In 1996, the WCPTSF took 30 000 people out on the streets of Cape Town, including parents, teachers and students to protest against the retrenchment of teachers.

However, the government persisted and sadly 20 000 teaching posts were cut. The ANC-led government went a step further when it closed 50 teacher training colleges.

The universities were now given the added burden of training teachers. This led to fewer teachers being trained. In addition, we inherited the Outcomes Based Education (OBE) system in 1998. We are still living with the bad effects of OBE.

Quo vadis – where to from here? Most of our pupils are at poor and understaffed schools. Schools of the poor have a limited curriculum. Most are unable to offer subjects such as Mathematics and Physical Sciences – subjects key to the study of pure and life sciences at a university.

Learners are being encouraged by most principals to not take these subjects in order to pass matric and for the results to look good. I remember in 1999 when only 19 out of 200 pupils at the school where I was principal did Mathematics on the higher grade.

I approached the remarkable Dr Victor Ritchie, former principal of Harold Cressy High, and asked him whether he could assist our school in the teaching of Mathematics on the higher grade. Two years later, 100 out of 200 students were doing Mathematics on the higher grade. His approach was – all students can do Mathematics. He offered his services free of charge.

I believe the only way we can change the state of education in South Africa is for school communities to get together and for student governing bodies (SGBs) to form organisations that can put pressure on the government to resolve these issues. Education departments like speaking to individual schools, but not to organisations representing the interests of larger school communities.

Student Representative Councils must replace the neutral Representative Council of Learners (RCLs). RCLs, in my opinion, were created by the Government of National Unity to neutralise the progressive political thinking of the students. This ploy has been successful since 1994. However, I am glad to see the re-awakening of a sleeping giant for progress in education.

Likewise, parents, teachers and students are questioning the role of government-controlled SGBs. When the government formulated regulations regarding SGBs, was it intended to give more power to the parents rather than to share this power?

It is my opinion that it was done deliberately to give parents more power.

In South Africa we do not learn from the past. Surely, struggle must lead to change. Parent, teacher student associations and parent, teacher associations were democratic structures from 1985 to 1994, and many schools made progress academically and politically during this period.

Progressive change is about making things better. It is not about retaining the status quo. In our educational system we must keep moving forward.

* Brian Isaacs obtained a BSc (UWC) in 1975, a Secondary Teacher’s Diploma in 1976, BEd (UWC) in 1981, and MEd (UWC) in 1992. He is a former matriculant, teacher and principal at South Peninsula High School.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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