Durban - The ANC intended making it compulsory for South African children to attend school for 14 years rather than 12, President Jacob Zuma said at the weekend.
Launching the ruling party’s election manifesto in Mbombela, Zuma firmed up plans to add another obligatory year to the school timetable, in addition to Grade R, which is already being phased in.
According to Zuma’s speech (which was posted on the party’s official website), in the next five years the ANC would be working towards implementing two years of compulsory preschool education.
Teachers’ unions have expressed support for the plan, as long as certain guarantees can be provided.
Allen Thompson, deputy president of the National Teachers Union (Natu), told The Mercury that his organisation supported extending the schooling system to 14 years, but wanted a guarantee that the necessary learning material would be provided, and that the teachers would be university-educated.
There have also been complaints about the level of pay of Grade R teachers.
The government has been mulling over the idea of an extra year of schooling for some time, as one of the more significant changes to the education system proposed by the National Development Plan.
Chapter nine of the government’s development blueprint states that two years of quality preschool enrolment for 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds be made compulsory before Grade 1.
But the document acknowledges that funding for infrastructure and teachers will prove a challenge.
Teachers’ unions have long bemoaned the fact that many Grade R teachers are unqualified, and are in effect “child-minders” rather than teachers.
In 1999, there were nearly 157 000 South African pupils enrolled in Grade R, but by 2012 there were more than 767 000 in 22 000 classrooms.
In 2012, the national budget for Grade R education was R3 billion.
KwaZulu-Natal alone now has more than 240 000 5-year-olds attending Grade R, taught by 5 244 staff.
The provincial Education Department has set itself a target of building another 300 Grade R classrooms by the end of the current financial year.
Speaking in KZN last year, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga emphasised the importance of Grade R – which is not yet compulsory.
“We know how important the foundation is to a house. If the foundation is not good enough, cracks will show in the walls, the doors will not close properly and the roof might cave in.
“This is the same with education. If the foundation in Grade R is not solid, the benefits for learning later on will be negatively affected,” Motshekga said.
Zuma, in his speech at the weekend, made a commitment to the “fuller integration of Grade R educators in the post and remuneration structure” – a promise that teachers’ unions intend holding the government to.
Both the SA Democratic Teachers Union and Natu protested in KZN last year over Grade R teachers’ low salaries.
However, the KZN Education Department has made a distinction between Grade R “practitioners” and Grade R “teachers”, and has been adamant that it cannot pay unqualified “practitioners” on the same scale as qualified primary school teachers.
The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa) has also thrown its weight behind the move for an additional year of schooling – but believes that 2019 as an implementation date is too far away.
“We must fix the quality of education at the bottom of the system. And part of the solution is Grade R and pre-Grade R.
“But it must be formal and structured. And there will be challenges such as staffing and infrastructure,” Naptosa president Basil Manuel said.
Other ways in which Zuma aims to improve basic and tertiary education in the next five years include:
* Implementing the African language policy in schools.
* Introducing tablets in schools.
* Building 1 000 more schools and 12 new training college campuses.