The most important question in all of politics is this: “What school do you send your own children to?”
The answer to this question gives a complete explanation for the catastrophic failure of the education of most black children since 1994. However, it also gives the solution to it. It is the first question you should put to any politician who has anything to do with educational policy or to any member of a teachers’ trade union. If they refuse to answer the question you know they are malevolent hypocrites.
For poor people, the vast majority of South Africans, the question should be, “What school would you like to send your children to?”
What is the purpose of a school? That depends on whom you speak to. According to parents, the purpose of a school is to educate their children. According to teaching trade unions, the purpose is to provide secure, well-paid employment for their members. And according to politicians, the purpose is to test ideological theories on other peoples’ children.
To get a healthy educational system, the crucial need is to make the only purpose of every school to educate its children. Politicians and the trade union teachers must be shamed if they don’t acknowledge this.
The ANC is strongly socialist and believes in state run education. It also believes in racial affirmative action, where colour and not just merit alone should be a consideration in making appointments. Black teachers should be appointed before white teachers. And it believes in the corollary of “demographic representivity”, where the ratio of blacks to whites at every level of employment should be the same as the ratio in the population at large. Since whites are only 8% of the population, only 8% of engineers, doctors and teachers should be white. The ANC has passed laws, such as the Employment Equity Act, to bring this about.
When she was Minister of Education, the DA discovered that Naledi Pandor sent her son to Bishops (Diocesan College) and her daughter to Herschel, two extremely posh private schools in Cape Town with mainly white teachers. She was very haughty when challenged on why she didn’t send them to a state schools. Her spokesperson described her decision as "a private matter." This is wrong. Where she, an extremely rich, extremely powerful politician in the ruling party sends her own children to school is everybody’s business, and especially the business of poor black parents who can’t afford expensive private schools with white teachers. Instead they are forced to send them to dreadful state schools. Pandor knows these schools, the products of ANC policy, are dreadful, which is why she would never send her own children to them.
Pandor is no different in this respect from other ruling politicians around the world. In 1972 I taught (maths and science) at a comprehensive school for boys in Coventry, England. The comprehensive schools were an ideological product of the socialist Labour Party. The idea was to make education the same for everybody, middle and working class, rich and poor, clever and stupid. It phased out the grammar schools that had allowed gifted working class children to gain higher education and rise up into the professions. Of course, the comprehensive schools, as I saw at first hand, were a complete disaster and utterly wrecked the prospects of all working class children. Everyone knew this, including rich socialist politicians who made sure their own children never went to comprehensive schools.
The guardian angel of the comprehensive system was Shirley Williams, the Labour Minister of Education, terribly sincere and eloquent, endlessly sympathetic and sensible. She was forever preaching the humanitarian benefits of comprehensive schools. Then some rude journalist asked her if she sent her own daughter to one of these wonderful schools. Her answer went like this, “Well, you see, Rebecca is a very sensitive girl and so – “. And so she sent her to a posh school, which became private rather than comprehensive, just as did all the other Labour Ministers. She obviously thought the working classes too oafish and vulgar to have sensitive children.
The teaching trade unions are as hypocritical as the politicians and even more damaging. SADTU (SA Democratic Teachers Union) is probably the single biggest reason for the disaster in black education. In February 2016, Gavin Davis, the DA Shadow Minister of Basic Education, in a speech in parliament, launched a devastating attack on SADTU, under the title “Smash the SADTU protection racket”. Some quotations from it:
“In most provinces, the MECs are not in charge of education. Because, in most parts of the country, the South African Democratic Teachers Union – SADTU – is in charge of education. “
“Government officials there told us how SADTU teachers drop their own children off at former Model C schools and then go on strike for the day.”
“We heard how, in the Ugu District, there was no teaching for 7 months over the last two years because of a dispute between SADTU and the District Director.”
“We visited Bhekisizwe High School in the Umzinyathi District. We heard how teachers go on holiday two weeks before the term ends, and come back two weeks after the new term starts. And they get away with it.”
“At Dumaphansi Secondary, 146 learners have written matric maths in the last three years, but not one learner has passed. And guess what? Not one teacher has ever been fired for underperformance.”
“Our teachers are not teaching, that’s the bottom line. Organised labour has taken over the system. Until we correct that, we are wasting our time.”
“But we have to honest about this: there are too many teachers who can’t teach, and too many teachers who won’t teach. And they are never held to account because they are members of SADTU and SADTU is an alliance partner of the ANC.”
“And if you’re a SADTU member looking for promotion, it’s better to be on the streets picketing than in the classroom teaching.”
SADTU teachers are perfectly aware that they are wrecking the education of black children. This is why they send their own children to other schools. The ANC politicians, including President Ramaphosa, are also fully aware of it, and they too make sure their own children never go to schools controlled by SADTU. But they are politically beholden to SADTU, which is why Ramaphosa, in May 2017, as Deputy President, gave a glowing tribute to SADTU at their KZN Gala Dinner. He, like the rest of the ANC, is allowing the continued wrecking of the prospects of poor black children in order to keep the political support of SADTU.
The solution to our educational disaster is simple. Just follow the example of the rich politicians and the SADTU trade union leaders: let all South Africans have the same choice as they do in selecting schools for their own children. The way to smash the SADTU protection racket is to allow all South Africa parents the same right to choose as SADTU parents. Let parents chose the schools for their own children rather than politicians, educational bureaucrats and trade unions. Parents don’t have to formulate educational policy; they just have to choose. From exam results and from the local grapevine, they all know accurately what schools they would choose.
The obvious objection to this is the money. At the moment the good schools cost a lot more than the poor ones. There are answers to this.
First, we need to understand clearly that it is not expensive and elaborate facilities that make a good school. It is dedicated and qualified teachers. Of course schools must have basic amenities, such as dry classrooms, reliable electricity and good sanitation. But above a certain minimum of facilities, they don’t matter too much. Again I speak from experience. In 1971 I taught at Livingstone High School in Cape Town. It fell under the dreaded “Coloured Affairs Department” and its “Coloured” teachers earned much less than white teachers of the same qualifications, experience and seniority. Its facilities were meagre and dilapidated, with tiny grounds, small crammed classrooms and shabby sports fields and laboratories. In 1972 I moved to Caludon Castle Comprehensive School in England, which had enormous grounds, huge well-appointed sports fields, plentiful big modern classrooms, splendid gymnasiums and lavish laboratories. The education at Livingstone was far better than the education at Caludon; the exam results were far better too. This was because Livingstone had dedicated, hard-working teachers who really cared about the children and Caludon did not.
Second, we need to devise a system that allows new schools to start up in competition with the existing SADTU controlled state schools and that allows parents to choose them instead of the SADTU schools. This could be done by a voucher system, where the state gives every parent a voucher for each child to attend any school with fees below a certain amount. The schools so selected would then cash in the vouchers to fund themselves. Parents could then choose to take their children from the SADTU schools and place them in the new schools, where parents and headmasters would select the teachers and would be free to fire them if they did not perform competently and responsibly. If too many parents withdrew from a SADTU school, it would have to be shut down and replaced with a non-SADTU school.
There are variations on this principle, including “Charter Schools” and cheap private schools. The latter are already growing, with encouraging results.
A recent survey of poorer (meaning “black”) schools in South Africa showed that most primary school teachers were unable to identify the main idea in a simple paragraph or to do simple arithmetic. However, they took a lot of time off teaching for “workshops, union meetings, memorial services and choir competitions”. This sums up the tragedy of South African education today. The remedy is obvious. It only needs the political will to implement it.
Admittedly, this is a big “only”.
Andrew Kenny is a contracted columnist to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you support what we stand for and would like to see more of our writing in the media, join us here
1. Parliamentarians sending their own children to Model C and private schools;
On 16 February 2016, DA Shadow Minister of Basic Education, Gavin Davis MP, during the SONA Debate in Parliament, delivered an excellent speech condemning SADTU and pointing out that no parliamentarian sent his/her children to township schools with SADTU teachers.
2. The survey reporting the woeful state of primary school teaching was published in the Sunday Times, 11 Mar 2018. My quote is from it.