Our school system is sitting on its backside
Imagine 26 teachers sitting on their backsides every period in the same school, day after day, because they are in excess. There are too few classrooms for them to teach in, and they cannot be moved. In well-functioning schools at most two or three teachers are "free" in a period. In our case this means 26 salaries are paid month after month, which they happily receive and spend, only to come back to school the next day to sit for months, even years, on end.
This is South African education in 2013, and the 26 sitting teachers are located in one school alone; they are, in the soothing language of official documents, "educators in addition".
These excess teachers are protected by laws, resolutions and politics. To move them, they should want to move and the school with teachers in excess has to agree. Here union agreement is important.
To move them outside a 30km radius from where they live is unacceptable, according to one senior official. To move them not only requires their permission, it requires the permission of the receiving school. The receiving school is the one that desperately needs additional teachers. But no school is going to "receive" excess teachers who have not been fully active in their subject disciplines for months and years.
These are not, in most cases, the high-energy, enthusiastic teachers who have kept up to date with the developments in curriculum, teaching or assessment. One look at the slow-moving teacher and the receiving school decides rather to advertise the vacant position and hire someone more knowledgeable and enthused about teaching and about children. The result: the excess teachers keep sitting and sitting and sitting.
In economics, the problem is called efficiency - the extent to which your resources are used optimally in the achievement of your goals. The financial implications are staggering.
We are, therefore, paying 26 teachers to do nothing. We are paying teachers to fill vacant positions that should have been filled by these sedentary teachers.
We are unable to pay teachers who are actually working in some provinces, like the Eastern Cape, who could have been paid from monies paid to immobile teachers. This is not even talking about effectiveness - that companion term in the economics of education that indicates whether you in fact attain your goals in the first place. How well we use the resources available to us to achieve our goals is at stake with efficiency.
Does educational change in our country need more money? No.
The question that must be asked by Treasury is this: "What do you do with the money you have?"
In a rational world the problem is easily solved. You simply change the labour relations resolutions that allow this mess to continue and you move teachers to where the need is. You tell the unions that the interests of the children matter and that if the teachers do not move, they will be declared redundant and have to leave the system. The unions will throw their toys out of the cot, but do it anyway and make sure the president and the cabinet throw their weight behind the decision. That is what is possible, as I said, in a rational world.
Our government has no hesitation in posting new graduates in the health sciences to rural outposts, whether they like it or not; but teachers have a powerful union and young graduates are politically powerless in the hands of bureaucrats.
So we move thousands of health graduates every year to places many of them have never heard about. Of course the graduates can indicate their place of preference, such as a hospital or clinic closer to home; but if the vacancy is in the rural sticks of another province, they are simply posted there. I have yet to hear these graduates complaining about the value of that learning experience.
Of course government can assist teachers with their movements away from home, with housing or travel allowances and the like. But the money spent through decisive political action would over a few years result in massive savings for government - money that could be used to replace pit latrines or furnish schools with science laboratories. But that is in a rational world.
So the next time you hear people ask "Why is it that South Africa spends more than any other African country on education and has some of the worst academic results?", think of these 26 teachers as a simple example of a much broader malaise in education and politics where inputs (resources) and outputs (student achievement) exist in a very weak relationship to each other because of these massive inefficiencies.