Open or closed, South African schools need radical social change

11Aug 2020
The Guardian
Open or closed, South African schools need radical social change

If one compares schools to cars, a tiny minority own multiple luxury sedans, 4x4s, or bakkies. A second, small group of households own one or more Toyota Corollas or Volkswagen Polos. A third, larger group of households share access to ‘skedonks’: old, beat-up, stuck-together-so-they-barely-work,-

By  Jon Fish Hodgson   

-unsafe, third-hand cars. Most of our schools are skedonks.

Millions of people are hungry. Millions of children are out of school. Poor children are learning least of the formal curriculum and will likely be consigned to unemployment on a massive scale. Simultaneously, a wealthy, mostly white minority are living online in islands of luxury. This is South Africa, every day, of every week, of every year. Avoiding this reality is an ideological choice that misdirects public discourse. Covid-19 has intensified oppression; it must not be used to hide a desperate need for radical change.

Real uncertainties and real data

Media debate about closing versus reopening schools is problematic on its own terms. The World Health Organisation recommends that decisions about schooling be made as part of a society-wide, long-term response informed by accurate data. Targeted testing and tracing are increasingly inadequate to provide timeous local-level data on community transmission. Yet, the government continues to announce dates, weeks or months in advance, as though the course of the pandemic is fixed and known.

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Abstract debates about reopening also don’t engage practical realities. Learner attendance has been low in parts of the country, meaning the supposed benefits don’t manifest. Conversely, the claim that working parents can’t provide childcare is a middle-class framing, assuming nuclear families as households. Among poor black South Africans, extremely high unemployment “means that childcare is usually available” (as Kate Alexander and Narnia Bohler-Muller comment on the UJ-HSRC survey). Generally, childcare at home is about households, not nuclear families. More than two-thirds of black children live in “extended” households.

‘Open schools’: Words misrepresenting reality

What does it mean for schools to be “open” ordinarily? Stats SA data indicates approximately 16 million children of school-going age, but the department of basic education (DBE) records the total number of learners as approximately 13 million. Of those apparently out of school, an estimated 500,000 or more are children with disabilities, many of whom may never have attended school. An uncertain number of others are undocumented children, who are often denied access. Millions more are later-grade “drop-outs”, who have been pushed out of school by poor conditions in school; pressure for income; and the prospect of unemployment after school.

What does it mean to be “in school”? Philosophy aside, this depends on the practical realities of 25,000 schools across South Africa. But calling all 25,000 institutions “schools”, as though they are all substantially the same, is misleading.

If one compares schools to cars, a tiny minority own multiple luxury sedans, 4x4s, or bakkies. A second, small group of households own one or more Toyota Corollas or Volkswagen Polos. A third, larger group of households share access to “skedonks”: old, beat-up, stuck-together-so-they-barely-work, unsafe, third-hand cars — despite their drivers. What sense does it make to call all these “cars”, as though they provide similar affordances?

Advocates for reopening schools are arguing that it is less awful for poor learners if their skedonks are sent onto the roads than if all “cars” are parked. But debating whether “schools” should close or reopen avoids the vast inequality between BMWs and skedonks. Worse, most South African households don’t own even skedonks so have to cram themselves into taxis: “public” transport that is subsidised only partly by state funds.

Most South African children are “in school” at overcrowded buildings which have never been funded at the minimal level needed to operate well. Many schools (like taxis) are patently unsafe ordinarily, as evidenced by learners dying in open pit latrines; and the sudden rush to provide basic sanitation, including running water. You still get the schooling you pay for (in fees, and transport costs or residential proximity), as Dr Heather Jacklin observed recently.

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These debates are also missing or avoiding, further critical facts about open “schools”. First, in non-Covid-19 times, tens of thousands of learners are “progressed” from grade to grade annually, despite them not meeting the minimum “promotion” requirements, i.e. passing. Policy on promotion and progression stipulates that a learner can only repeat one grade during each three-year school phase (Grade 1-3, 4-6 etc.). Consequently, most SA classrooms comprise learners with prior performance across a range of stipulated grade levels, which constrains learning over time, especially in large classes. When “schools” are open, many learners are systemically deprived of substantial learning over years. Is this what learners must now be supported to “catch up” to?

Second, the state school system employs professionals as “subject adviser” specialists at district level to support teachers. But in most districts, there is only one – and rarely more than three – advisers appointed for each subject-phase combination (eg. Further Education and Training/Grade 10-12 isiZulu).

As districts comprise hundreds of schools, and schools have multiple teachers in each subject-phase area, the state employs a couple of advisers per thousands of teachers. If this doesn’t render subject advisers structurally incompetent, then their job description does: It instructs advisers to visit schools to work individually with teachers. Yet these same scarce subject advisers are responsible for guiding and supporting teachers to interpret “trimmed” curricula and teaching plans amid pandemic context.

Third, inadequate resource provision is the core and common cause of the multitude of schooling lawsuits in recent years: about mud schools; learner transport; desks and chairs; textbooks; teacher staffing (though not yet subject advisers), and others. These are all related: Provincial education departments use prolonged under-staffing, plus hiring “freezes”, to “manage” budget shortfalls. And state school system provision per learner (in terms of real purchasing power) has been declining for about a decade — from what was inadequate to what is now absurd.

Don’t blame or threaten teachers for struggling against neglect

It seems strange that, despite these facts, the same economist, Nic Spaull, who highlighted declining provision per learner, last week bluntly attacked teachers. He writes that teachers “are being paid whether they work or not”, then immediately reveals he believes teachers aren’t working: “By refusing to work they are risking the lives of children and undermining other parts of society.”

Spaull provides no evidence for his vast claim that teachers are “refusing to work”. Nor does he provide any evidence for the implication that teachers don’t want to be teaching, or at least caring for their learners — if this can be organised safely, in material and psychological terms, at under-provisioned schools, amid a pandemic. Mental health is a crucial, frequently ignored aspect of the pandemic and “normal” life in SA, while teacher stress is severe.

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Teacher unions’ pushing for schools to close, for multiple reasons, is plainly not the same as teachers’ refusing to work. Perhaps teachers are simply more able to object than other employees, who are less connected to communities and local support. Spaull is simply reiterating the common narrative that teachers are trouble; and that unions are where teachers gather to be more trouble together.

Spaull’s attack on teachers is not strange, though, when seen in the light of the Council of Education Ministers’ threats of “legal action” against individuals who “disrupt” schooling. The CEM statement adds that “government is extremely concerned about teachers, principals, non-teaching staff who use any platform to attack government for going back to work”. This is an open silencing of legitimate criticism and moral dissent by those confronting derelict conditions daily.

Similarly, the DBE’s Director-General, after repeating the threat against “disruption” in writing, immediately insisted on swift “disciplinary processes […] if a teacher refuses to report for duty”. These are threats from highly placed politicians and professionals against the predominantly black women engaged in childcare and education, often in abysmal conditions.

Adding salt to the threatened lash, the Western Cape Education Department is advertising temporary “teacher [classroom] assistant” roles paying R5,000 per month for qualified teachers — in a move that would undercut and undermine teachers’ salaries beyond Covid-19; and exacerbate dire teacher shortages and over-large class sizes.

Replace our non-viable society to free education

In recent years, the relatively lesser results of South Africa’s predominantly poor, black learners have drawn far more attention when schools are closed uncommonly than when they’re open. Whether in John Taolo Gaetsewe District in the Northern Cape, or in the northern parts of Port Elizabeth, when schools have been closed (by community protests for infrastructure and/or staffing), we’ve heard a lot more about “the best interests of the child” and how it’s poor children who suffer most from school closures. The same seems so now amid Covid-19.

But this neglects the living history of schooling in South Africa as a terrain of oppression — and struggle. Colonial schooling was racist long before apartheid intensified the same policies. State schooling was only extended to the majority, especially at secondary school level, from the mid-1970s uprisings through the 1980s’ states of emergency. Substantially more is still spent per learner in wealthier urban provinces than in provinces comprising former bantustans. This background explains groups like the C19 People’s Coalition ECD and Schooling Working Group’s saying: “No! to just opening schools. Yes! to opening schools justly.”

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Since 1994, two children of domestic workers have become presidents, as Nelson Mandela contemplated. And state schools have been turned into sites of limited social welfare provision. But all people need nutrition every single day. Similarly, (skedonk) schools aren’t the solution to unemployment, which is structured into the South African globalised economy.

As Spaull himself has highlighted, inequalities evident at matric exist by Grade 3, presumably originating prior to children starting school. Socioeconomic context remains the single biggest factor in predicting learners’ school results. Schooling remains central to reproducing SA’s inhumane social order.

Whether schools are reopened or closed, the people-made pandemic problem is South Africa’s social order. Evidence of this existed long before Covid-19; so too did radical guidance. To borrow words from Frantz Fanon: “What is the status of [South Africa]? A systematised dehumanisation. […] A society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced.”

Regarding a viable society, Angela Davis, in her Biko Memorial Lecture, said: “Freedom should mean in the very first place the freedom of education – the freedom to learn.”

Education, as Paulo Freire wrote, must empower every person to understand the world; and to live in it together, which means to struggle to make it humane. Are we now learning and teaching our children, and each other, the languages, arts and sciences of radical social change in action towards a more human world