By Gavin Davis
All of us have been shaken by the 24 schools that were burned to the ground in Vuwani, Limpopo, in the last week.
Whichever way you look at it, these acts of vandalism have set us back in our task of redressing the legacy of unequal education in our country.
In 1953, Hendrik Verwoerd introduced the reprehensible policy of Bantu Education. This policy limited the educational opportunities of black South Africans to ensure a steady supply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour.
Thirteen years later, in the Chamber of the National Assembly, Verwoerd was stabbed to death by one of the parliamentary service officers. The only thing tragic about that day was that Verwoerd’s policies didn’t die with him.
Indeed, Verwoerd’s ghost continues to haunt us.
Because, if you are a poor, black child, your chances of getting a decent education in a democratic South Africa are still very remote. And the uncomfortable truth, is that the gap in our education system is getting wider.
Just look at the facts.
In schools in the most affluent areas (‘quintile 5’ schools), the matric pass rate has remained steady at above 90% over the past three years.
But in schools in the poorest areas, (‘quintile one’ schools), the matric pass rate has dropped from 70.3% to 61.6% in the last three years.
In these schools, the physical science pass rate has dropped from 60.5% to 49.9%. The mathematics pass rate has dropped from 48.6% to 36.9%.
What is going wrong?
It is not a question of funding. The Basic Education Budget stands at R219 billion – almost one-fifth of the total national budget.
And, quite correctly, the state spends six times more on learners in poor areas than learners in more affluent areas.
So how is that, two decades into our democracy, poor black children are falling behind?
The answer lies in the quantity and quality of teaching.
The truth is that, for every excellent and dedicated teacher in a disadvantaged school, there are many more who can’t teach and many more who won’t teach.
And this problem will not go away until we break the SADTU protection racket that shields under-performing teachers from accountability.
In this regard, Minister Motshekga’s plan to licence and professionalise teaching is a step in the right direction.
SADTU will no doubt try and block this proposal. We hope that Minister Motshekga finds the courage that has so far eluded her when it comes to releasing the ‘Jobs for Cash’ report.
If it ever sees the light of day, the ‘Jobs for Cash’ report will show that SADTU has captured six out of nine provincial education departments. We trust that Minister Motshekga’s failure to release the report does not mean that she has been captured by SADTU as well.
Minister Motshekga has made much of her Department’s proposal for a ‘three-tier’ system made up of an academic stream, a technical stream and an occupational stream.
In principle, the introduction of technical and occupational streams for learners who do not have the aptitude for the traditional academic stream is to be welcomed.
We must be wary, however, of the target to offer 60% of all learners occupational subjects like hairdressing, beauty care, nail technology, upholstery and bricklaying by 2030.
We must be cautious because weak schools will be under pressure to push failing learners into the occupational stream – even if these learners could have coped in an academic stream had they received better schooling.
Take Kwabhamu Junior Secondary in Zululand, for example, one of the twenty-two schools that obtained a zero percent pass rate in the matric exams last year. The thirty-seven matric learners at this school didn’t fail because they were in the wrong stream. They failed because the school system failed them.
The policy of Bantu Education was reprehensible because it limited the educational opportunities of poor, black learners. We must make sure that the ‘three-stream’ approach does not do the same.
On that note, there is another potentially retrograde step in the offing. And that is the dilution of School Governing Body powers as contemplated in the Draft Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill.
School Governing Bodies give communities a voice in how schools are run. They are the difference between a public school system in a democracy, and a state school system in an authoritarian regime such as Apartheid.
We cannot redress the legacy of the past by mimicking the past. We must guard against the return of Bantu Education. And we must never go back to the state school system of the Apartheid era.
The only way to exorcise Verwoerd’s ghost is by improving the quality and quantity of teaching in disadvantaged schools. This means breaking SADTU’s stranglehold on our public education system, so that every child is given a chance to succeed.
Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the debate on the budget of the Basic Education Department. It appeared in the Daily Maverick on 10 May 2016.