Close Schools Now
Fight to fundamentally change education instead!
Written by a Western Cape Teacher
Schools have been forced open by the big push to “save the economy” by loosening lockdown restrictions. On 7 June, new daily cases totaled 2300. Five weeks since the opening of schools on 8 June, over 12,000 new cases were reported daily. Education workers have been thrown onto the frontline.
Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed that schools and economic activity are closely linked. The capitalist system relies on schools to provide childcare so workers can be forced back to work to “stimulate” the economy (read: to produce profit for their bosses).
However, the question of whether schools are safe to open has scratched the plaster off a much bigger festering wound. People have started asking how we could ever accept schools as they currently are, even in non-pandemic times.
Unsafe, under-resourced schools
Capitalism relies on schools to partially cushion some of its worst failures – such as child malnutrition and the threat of violent crime in working class communities. Rampant unemployment, increasing inequality, and lack of service delivery are consequences of the ruling class’s failure to put people’s lives ahead of its own greed. The same capitalists who drive cuts in public spending determine when and how the economy “reopens”.
According to the National Treasury, between 16,4 and 16,8% of South Africa’s budget was spent on basic education between 2015 and 2020. In the 2020/21 budget this is projected to decline to 16%. As the money allocated has stood relatively still, the amount of learners entering schools has increased, and so spending per learner has decreased over the years. The supplementary 2020 budget says schools must cut infrastructure spending by 20%. The decreased spending has resulted in staff shortages, ballooning class sizes, lack of support staff, insufficient resources and the criminal deterioration of infrastructure.
Road to privatisation
The Western Cape Education Department (WCED), for example, only employs one teacher for every 41 learners [EMIS School Realities]. Classes in rural schools are often 70 or more. A small minority of schools are able to employ extra teaching staff in order to have smaller class sizes, via School Governing Bodies (SGBs) and using a fee-paying system and fundraising.
Besides a form of class apartheid for learners, this means precarious contract employment, lack of benefits, and unequal pay for equal work. When economic crisis hits and caregivers are unable to afford fees, it is the SGB-appointed staff that lose their jobs first. Fewer teachers mean even further strain on remaining staff, and on the learners. The reliance on the fee system to fill the gaps left by public funding in schools is a clear step on the road towards privatisation of public schools, perpetuating an economically segregated schooling system.
The announcement of a “teacher assistant” programme, where a stipend equalling 20% the normal teacher salary in the Western Cape is paid to qualified unemployed teachers, is another blatant attempt by the ruling class to casualize school staff, and devalue the profession – making it ripe for privatization. The army of unemployed teachers will be used to threaten teachers demanding better working conditions into accepting worsening circumstances. There is a major risk that the ruling class will use this moment to force more privatization of education.
Not only teachers, but caregivers, see how unsustainable the ruling party’s drive towards austerity is, and will seek out ways of organising against it. Schools and their surrounding communities played a pivotal role in historical struggles against the Bantu Education system and apartheid generally. We are starting to see the embryo of a revival in this militancy as schools and community organisations have started picketing in spite of threats of legal action against protestors from the Department of Basic Education. The working class cannot take seriously the idea that formal education is a form of liberation, if our schools are still dominated by ruling class ideology.
Schools under capitalism
Capitalist ideology is clearly reflected in the under-funded and under-resourced nature of the vast majority of schools, more than 75% of which have no library. But, it also plays out in more subtle ways such as the content of the curriculum, language of instruction, which schools offer which subjects, and “managing” teachers through extreme administration requirements. The obsession with standardised testing, focus on punishment as the main form of discipline, uniform checks and enforcement – often gendered and racist-, regulated break times, and many other factors strip learners of their individuality and talents and aim to train the youth as docile cannon fodder for the brutal capitalist economy.
The capitalist class uses schools for their own benefit. Childcare for workers allows bosses to demand longer work hours. Schools train the future generations in skills that make them efficient in producing profits as workers, but also teach a false consciousness, which tries to convince the working class to accept society as it is. The motto of the WCED displayed at many working class schools – “Enter to learn, leave to serve” – may be more astute than they realise. The vast majority of learners are trained to serve the ever-increasing wealth of the rich, instead of nurturing individual talents and skills in order to serve communities and humanity as a whole.
In short, schools in their current form play a big role in maintaining the same broken and sick society by teaching its values.
Arenas of class struggle
However, just like workplaces, schools are also arenas of class struggle and the working class must take advantage of this as we have in the past. Our predecessors fought and won education as a right through brutal class struggle on the foundations of ending child labour. The academic freedom for critical thinking and inquiry about capitalism, how to organise against it, and other progressive elements of the education system exist because of concessions made by the ruling class as a result of struggle. In South Africa these were wrested as part of the struggle against Bantu Education and the apartheid regime.
To ensure that schools become primarily centres for teaching and learning, instead of shouldering the social burdens created by the capitalist system, we have to make bold demands that take us forward and address the root causes of poverty and inequality. Fears about lack of feeding schemes for some of the most vulnerable in our society are understandable. But, this pandemic has shown that we must struggle for a humane post-Covid-19 world. We cannot settle for “working with what we have”.
The vast majority did not have safe and healthy teaching and learning environments even before this pandemic. We cannot postpone the struggle to fundamentally change our education system as we hurtle towards a future of more pandemics, severe climate change, and economic crises.
Uncompromising class struggle needed
Unions, caregivers, learners and their communities must strive to set clear non-negotiables that must be met – if not, schools should shut down totally and the 2020 academic year be cancelled. These demands must address the current situation as well as look towards building a future in schooling that serves the working class, not the bosses.
Although the major teacher unions have been inconsistent with their position, wavering between opening and closing of schools, they still have a major role to play in a struggle for equal education for all. The rank and file membership of these unions should be under no illusions that the compromised leadership will have the political perspective to wage the struggle needed. In SADTU, this leadership is in a political alliance with the very people who employ teachers – the government.
SADTU is continuously caught between responding to their members and keeping friendships with the ANC government, which result in demands that only reflect the bare minimum and short-term (eg. close the schools until the peak is over), instead of seizing the opportunity to overhaul the education system now. Not only does this short-term outlook fail teachers in the long term as privatization and retrenchments loom, it fails to unite teachers with the school communities. Members of teacher and education-worker unions should fight for uncompromising class-based perspectives. These perspectives must unite school workers with the working class communities they serve in a struggle for true public education that provides quality teaching and learning environments for all.
A fighting programme should include these demands:
- Build and upgrade schools & classrooms to accommodate class sizes not exceeding 20 learners now! Update & install quality sanitation at all schools. Mass investment in a genuine public works programme with workers employed on full public sector salaries and benefits. No tenderpreneurs!
- Mass employment of currently unemployed qualified teachers for smaller class sizes. Reject the poverty wage “teacher assistant” programme!
- Use the time schools are closed to further train & develop all education staff, & overhaul the inflexible curriculum.
- Home language instruction for all – employ unemployed teachers & trained graduates to work on translation & development of education materials.
- Employ sufficient support staff: cleaners, maintenance workers, lab assistants etc on permanent basis with full salaries & benefits.
- Permanent provision of dedicated school transport that can accommodate social distancing and be sanitized regularly.
- Employ at least one nurse, one social worker & one counsellor for every school.
- Full time, insourced security stationed at schools at all times to prevent vandalism.
- Free workplace or community-based childcare for all who are working.
- No one should go hungry when schools are closed – sufficient food and basic necessities to be distributed to all communities and households in need during and after the pandemic.
- Nationalise all private schools, abolish the school fee system. Centralize all school funding & distribute it according to need. Share all facilities (fields, sports halls etc) between schools as needed, under control of democratically elected committees of school workers, caregivers & learners. Full-time administrators must be paid the average salary of a skilled worker & open to recall at any time.
To win this and more, we must fight for the nationalisation of the mines, large-scale agriculture, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and other big businesses. These must be put under democratic control and management by workers and communities. When production is planned according to the needs of the majority, we can ensure schools and the communities they serve have all the resources they need. Bold demands such as these lay a foundation for building a more equal and quality education system. They are also linked to fighting, eg, unemployment and precarious employment, and can serve as a transitional bridge towards a socialist society free from exploitation.
We should be clear that we will not win these demands easily, and we are encouraged by the fighting spirit of the rank and file teachers, learners and communities who have not waited on union bureaucracy but organised pickets, boycotts and calls for solidarity. Right now we have to build on the actions taking place at several schools, support teachers and principals that are being threatened and silenced, and unite and prepare for mass strike action if schools remain open.