Headlines about the state of public education suggest a system on a consistent downward trajectory. For those who are neatly tucked away in the pockets of privilege it is easy to shrug off the extent of the calamity in many schools across South Africa. This is dangerous considering that the future of thousands of children is in jeopardy as they emerge from the education system either by dropping out or with a meaningless matric certificate.
There’s a pattern for the alarming reports on education: things are in disarray; the government was notified but there was no response; where legal action has been taken, the government has ignored any court decisions. A case in point is the mud school case with the Legal Resource Centre where government is yet to build the schools and the backlog of infrastructure that is yet to be implemented for many schools. When President Zuma visited the Eastern Cape in order to address the crises last year, those involved were at loggerheads with each other, resulting in a power struggle that had little to do with education reform in the province. The recent article about a school in Grahamstown, Good Shepard Primary School, is another example where the government is being accused of ignoring a court order and lawyers are threatening to go back to court. Talk of strikes by some teachers in the Eastern Cape forms the background noise and the largest teacher union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) is always responsible for the disruption for learners in already impoverished schools. When we do hear about the more privileged sector of education, government is seen as interfering with parent’s pockets and threatening teachers’ performance perks, rather than dealing with the structural issues that affect dysfunctional schools. The questionable and controversial regulation on bonuses for teachers in former Model C schools highlights a recognition at how education entrenches the socio-economic divide where those with money pay for the perks of quality education and those who cannot, are ignored by the government.
Some stories are lucky enough to be publicised. But many are not. Some schools have the resources to take the Department of Education to court but many are not and teachers and principles’ hands are tied when it comes to taking action against the government at a local or provincial level. While I was doing research in Grahamstown I interacted with teachers and principals who accepted it as a norm that district officials would not deliver equipment and textbooks on time in order to support learning. The official learner-teacher ratio was also compromised because district offices could do nothing about the lack of funding for employing new teachers. But business goes on as usual. It seems that many teachers have become accustomed to working within the limitations and this is seen as admirable. That some teachers continue teaching even when they are not being paid for months is another feature of education in the Eastern Cape (while chatting to my mother about this, she alluded to her short-lived experience of teaching during apartheid when the same practice of not being paid for months was the norm).
Beneath these limitations and the government’s consistent failure at improving education, I have wondered what recourse is available to teachers and parents who are affected by the vagaries of the chaos in our schools. When the Department of Education does not respond to court decisions, what should the next step be? Where there is no link between the justice system and getting things right in our education system, how can things change? It seems the justice system is failing if it cannot guarantee that government responds to the rulings made in court. As a teacher, I may not be au fait with the complexities of the legal system but logic suggests that if the justice system cannot enforce government to act upon court rulings, something is amiss. If the custodians of our education system are a law unto themselves, what are the possibilities for meaningful education reform?
I cannot help but wonder whether as citizens in a democratic country, are we really invested in education reform? Those who have political clout, social and economic capital send their children to schools that are not affected by the vagaries of the appalling public education system. And this is completely justifiable. However, as citizens, we need to organise more around the question of education if the basic right to education in a constitutional democracy is supposed to meaningful for all. Why do we not have more volunteers in schools or people opening their garages for extra lessons for learners whose teachers do not come to schools? The principle of “each one teach one” ought to be revisited by those who may not necessarily be directly affected by education. Who is going to teach the next generation if educated graduates do not join the teaching profession and change classrooms from within the system?
After reading the article about Good Shepard Primary School, I had a chat with a friend who teaches at the school. Her response to their predicament was profound and showed that a sense of justice needs to be restored in the education system. She succinctly pointed out that “with all said and done there is no justice for the children and why? Arrogance from the top. There is an enormous deficit in basic literacy and numeracy skills that won't be addressed if we continue on this path.”