Sunday Times STLive By Wilmot James , 2011-07-17

Education isn't a political football


Another View: With the opening of the Education International congress imminent, now is an excellent time to reconsider the role of trade unions in education.

Between July 22 and 26 EI, which represents 402 organisations with a membership of 30 million teachers, is holding its sixth world congress in Cape Town. The theme of this year's gathering is "Building the future through quality education" and the local host is the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu).

Although it's clear teachers' unions need to play a central role in fixing South Africa's education system, many, particularly Sadtu, believe this is confined to the class struggle.

Unions already play a role in protecting teachers' rights and interests, but few have programmes to help get our school system back on track. The reasons are complex, but it is time for unions to take a more active and progressive role in ensuring children get a quality education.

The problems facing our schools are manifold and well known. Many schools lack proper resources and infrastructure while teachers receive low wages. The children are from poor backgrounds, with parents who are often under-educated. Racially, most schools remain segregated due to the perpetuation of residential patterns established by apartheid.

Linguistically, children often fail to thrive because instruction is not in their home language. Socially, schools are too frequently sites of violence and abuse, not nurturing. Academically, pupils compare poorly to those in other African countries, despite our huge fiscal commitment to basic education.

While many of these problems will require long-term changes, revising and implementing incentive schemes for teachers could rectify some. This is important because many of our system's problems can be overcome through great teaching, just as so many of its advantages - at, say, rich schools - can be undone through bad teaching. If we can create incentives that will produce great results where it matters, we should implement them.

Here are a few recommendations:

First, to encourage teachers to innovate and improve their performance in the classroom, we need to introduce a form of merit pay for those whose pupils exceed expectations. In virtually every other profession, high performance is rewarded through bonuses, raises and promotion. But in our schools, we base any increase in pay or status on seniority, a system that rewards time over skill, passion, or results.

This reduces the incentive for teachers to go from good to great. We need to build rewards into the system so teachers can feel motivated to excel. When she was education minister, Naledi Pandor introduced legislation in early 2008 providing for incentives but it was never implemented. Parliament should look afresh at the legislation.

Second, we need to enhance the accountability of teachers and administrators to parents and their provincial education departments. The Western Cape has already advanced this ideal, with an act that makes the evaluation of principals by the provincial education department mandatory.

Principals have to achieve the levels of excellence stipulated in their performance agreements - which ought to be backed up by the compulsory training of principals in school management and leadership.

The Western Cape act also increases teacher accountability to principals and prohibits political activities on campus during school hours.

Third, the protection of bad teachers by union leaders perpetuates mediocrity. In every other industry, poor performers are worked out of the system, but in the places that we entrust the education of the nation's children, bad teachers operate with impunity. They face the meekest of disciplinary measures and can spend years under-educating our youth.

This is not only of concern to parents and administrators, but to their colleagues. Many who believe passionately in their vocation want the bad apples to be dismissed so that their profession can be dedicated to quality. Of course, teachers require a certain degree of job protection so they can push the limits of intellectual innovation, even at the risk of being unpopular with their superiors, but the tenure system should protect only those who are truly helping their pupils.

Fourth, there should be more testing, more monitoring, and more international comparisons. This lets us know where we stand, and will keep the pressure on our education leaders to stay focused on quality.

Unions have typically resisted accountability mechanisms and measures that would make it easier to dismiss bad teachers. Indeed, unions treat these as threats to their power. This is understandable, but it is not justifiable, since the benefit of these measures would be good for education. In effect, the unions are the conservative stewards of the status quo. They end up not as progressive forces in society, but as an obstacle to pupils who want a better education.

Union interests are usually expressed in ways that deepen crises, rather than solve them. For example, the best time for a union to negotiate on behalf of its members is when their employer is most vulnerable - such as just before matric exams. This is when the government is most likely to accede to union demands, as it does not want to pay the political costs of poor matric results.

For a body which is concerned with advancing its members' interests, this style of bargaining makes sense - but it results in pupils' progress being held to ransom.

It's a twisted scenario, one that no one really wants, but predictable since it emanates from an industrial model of labour relations that pits teachers - "workers" - against the government - "management".

Both parties end up treating children's education as if it were a "product" or "commodity" around which labour issues are negotiated.

But, when teachers "down tools", they do not halt a production line of inanimate commodities but rather endanger young people's ability to get a decent education.

While industrial labour activity primarily affects management and shareholders, whose profits it wants to protect, teachers' union activities do not harm the state bureaucracy - which does not seek profit. Instead, the only impact these strikes have is on the pupils. This is untenable. We need a new model of labour relations between teachers and the government, one in which the education of pupils are not politicised for purposes of negotiations.

Now that we live in a democratic country where the government is accountable through elections and the constitution, unions can negotiate with the state in new and innovative ways.

One alternative is for parliament to legislate a negotiation cycle, with bargaining only in June and July, and once every three years.

The agreement reached will specify three-year-long wage scales with steady and predictable increases.

The second alternative is for the 13 trade unions and professional associations - yes there are 13! - in the education sector to form a federation, frame a charter of values, and begin to craft a robust system of self-regulation. This is better than having the state impose its will using its blunt instruments.

Many teachers desire merit pay, higher standards of accountability and the possibility of bad teachers being fired. But the teachers who want progress - most of whom are not interested in union work - do not shape the discussion within the unions. They should. And, frankly, unions should be at the forefront of this discussion if they want credibility as organisations which play such a major role in our children's education.

Once unions wish to make schools places of educational excellence, they will embrace these recommendations and help make them work. They have a positive role to play and should rise to the occasion.

  • Dr James is DA shadow minister of basic education