New research suggests that if their teachers strike for just 13 days, pupils in South Africa’s poorest schools lose as much as a quarter of a year’s worth of learning.
The study, authored by Gabrielle Wills, an economist at the University of Stellenbosch, investigated the impact that teacher strikes have on pupils’ academic performance.
Her research also suggested that South African teachers went on strike more often than teachers in 14 other African countries.
Wills’s study focused on the effect of strike action on Grade 6 pupils, during the 2007 public service protests.
While adverse impacts of teacher strikes were obvious in terms of interruptions to the school day and test timetables, Wills said she wanted to answer the fundamental question of if, and to what extent, teacher strikes affected the learning of primary school pupils.
Nearly 80 percent of teachers in the poorest three quarters of schools participated in strike activity on at least one day in 2007, while this figure was only 57 percent in the wealthiest quarter of schools.
The duration of strike action was also higher in impoverished schools, where on average teachers were absent for 13 days, compared with four days in the wealthier schools.
As expected, in the more privileged schools, where on average pupils’ academic performance was higher and strike activity was lower, Wills found no evidence of an adverse effect on achievement.
The results confirmed that pupils in the country’s poorest schools were worse affected than their wealthier peers. The negative effects were for the most marginalised children and the weakest academically.
“This should really serve as a warning to civil society on the detrimental effects of teacher strike action for children in our country, and the need to hold teachers accountable for this disruptive action.
“South African schools notoriously suffer from a problem of low time on task execution by teachers, whether through inefficient use of scheduled instructional time or through teacher absenteeism. Industrial action exacerbates this endemic problem.” Wills said that because the research applied to a specific grade at a specific point in time, it would take more data and research to understand how industrial action by teachers – whether outright strikes or work to rule – hindered learning in all grades.
She said that matric results had been an indicator for the impact of strikes, and had only suggested that teacher strikes were not harmful because teachers were able to make up for work stoppages through extra lessons.
With the matric exams as a standardised measure of performance, the reputations of schools were at stake.
In the rest of the school system, including the foundation phase, there was unlikely to be the same level of post-strike interventions.
Basil Manuel, the president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said that lost teaching time was difficult to recover, and that the primary and not the senior grades were the most important phase in a child’s education.
However, he said it was not fair to blame strikes on teachers, as both labour and employers were responsible for labour stability.