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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.
Make sure to also check out our analysis from before the first school openings: ORGANISE A NATIONAL STAY-AWAY TO KEEP SCHOOLS CLOSED
For a look at what is happening internationally, make sure to read DEFUND THE POLICE & TAX THE RICH TO FUND OUR SCHOOLS! from our USA section Socialist Alternative.
Teachers, support workers, and communities should decide how and when schools open
Statement by WASP
In response to the ministerial announcement by Angie Motshekga that schools will reopen from 1 June, a majority of existing teacher unions SADTU, NAPTOSA, PEU, NATU, and SAOU, have released a joint statement instructing their members to not enter schools that are unsafe. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), all school staff are expected to report to duty on 25 May.
Capitalism at the root of crisis in education
South Africa’s education system is in crisis at all levels – from early childhood development to higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how our public sector institutions have been gutted through under investment, privatisation, and neglect. However, the root of this crisis is the capitalist system. The ANC’s wholehearted embrace of capitalism and the adoption of a neoliberal agenda in all spheres, including education, has eroded any hope that they will provide quality education for the vast majority.
We have a two-tier public school system, made up of fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. In addition to this there are “independent” (private) schools, some of which also receive state funding. The state funding for schools is based on a quintile system that has been proven through multiple years of research to be completely inadequate in assessing the needs of schools. It has served to further entrench poverty in schools that serve poor and working class communities, and protect the wealth of schools in the top tier.
In 21.4% of public schools, there are more than 36 learners to an educator according to the 2019 EMIS School Realities report. Overcrowding of classrooms has severe impacts on both teachers, who cannot give individual attention to learners and struggle with classroom management and workloads, as well as the learners, who can fall through the cracks as learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues go unnoticed. Currently more than half of learners starting in Gr R do not make it to Gr 12.
Ultimately this same government has shown its complete disregard for the lives of the people it supposedly serves: it took the drowning of a learner in a pit latrine, and another learner killed by the collapsing walls of one, for the government to commit to eradicating the remaining 3800+ pit latrines still in our schools. Enacting austerity budgets over decades has resulted in schools that have no running water, a lack of heating and electricity, insufficient classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, burgeoning unemployment amongst qualified teachers, and lack of resources for teaching and learning generally.
Not safe for staff and learners
In these existing conditions, combined with increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the push to reopen schools is all the more reckless. It exposes just how divorced the decision-makers in the DBE and the Provincial Departments of Education (PDEs) are from the reality schools face daily. Teachers, support workers, parents, guardians and learners however know better, and they are rightfully frightened at the prospect of reopening schools.
Without an immediate increase in budget and staffing, the empty reassurance that class sizes will be smaller in the DBE’s approach to reopen schools has no real meaning to workers in education, who are acutely aware of the shortcomings in our schools. However, an even bigger question is where will the PPE and sanitary measures come from, when our very hospitals are struggling to secure the same?
Schools as a capitalist tool
Those supporting and even pushing for the reopening of schools reveal clearly that schools under a capitalist system are not primarily for learning to take place. Many say schools must reopen because parents must go to work, children rely on schools for feeding schemes, and that the budget cannot afford a suspended academic year. Schools, just like workplaces, are arenas of class struggle – they are a valuable tool for the capitalist class. In this respect they primarily provide childcare services so that bosses can demand longer hours from the workers they exploit for profits. Additionally, schools provide the skills for an efficient and educated workforce, where the vast majority is trained to serve the ever-increasing wealth of the rich, instead of nurturing individual talents and skills.
For the working class, schools provide essential social interaction between peers and teachers to equip them with an understanding of the world and natural environment, and vital skills to meet human needs on a sustainable basis. Contrary to the class prejudices against teachers and learners in poor schools spewed by Helen Zille and her racist crowd, education is vital to the working class. Our predecessors fought and won it 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 bosses and the ruling class. In South Africa these were wrestled 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. Although fears about lack of feeding schemes for some of the most vulnerable in our society are understandable, this pandemic has shown us that we must demand and struggle for a humane post-COVID-19 world. We cannot settle for “working with what we have”.
Build for a National Stay Away
WASP supports the call for a stay away by the teachers’ unions. We call on all unions and union federations to support and adopt this important call. WASP will also be campaigning for communities and parents/guardians to keep learners away from schools. Where possible we will organise pickets outside schools and utilize other creative methods to protest this decision and show solidarity. We are calling on SAFTU and the Working Class Summit to make a call and organise for a National Stay Away on the 1st of June 2020. There is a groundswell of support for this action amongst workers and communities. If successful, this can serve as a basis for a General Strike to unite the struggle against reopening of schools with struggles in other industries for PPEs, against job losses and in communities battling COVID-19.
Months of patient engagement and advice from unions, education and health experts, parents, guardians and learners, has not convinced this government to address the current crisis scientifically. Instead, it is determined to risk the lives of school-based workers, learners, and their communities – effectively the whole of South Africa.
The DBE and the PDEs have forced workers in the education sector to take direct action in the form of a stay away. This action must be supported by the communities that they serve. Such working class solidarity and united action has the potential to not only halt the reopening of schools in order to save lives, but change our dysfunctional education system completely.
Struggle for a better education system
We can win real gains by demanding the following as well:
- The immediate construction of new schools and classrooms to accommodate class sizes not exceeding 20 learners to pandemic-proof schools, as well as updating and installing quality sanitation at all schools. Mass investment in a true public works programme with workers employed on full public sector salaries and benefits. No tenderpreneurs!
- Mass employment of currently unemployed qualified teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes.
- Utilize the time schools are closed to further train and develop all education staff, and overhaul the inflexible curriculum. Unemployed teachers and trained graduates must be employed on full public sector salaries and benefits to immediately work on translation and development of teaching and learning materials that facilitate home language instruction at all levels of basic education.
- Employment of sufficient support staff: cleaners, maintenance workers, lab assistants, tech assistants, admin etc. on a permanent basis with full salaries and benefits.
- Permanent provision of dedicated school transport that can accommodate social distancing and be sanitized regularly.
- Employment of at least one nurse, one social worker and one counsellor for every school, depending on the size of the school. Physical and psychological wellbeing are essential for learning and teaching to take place.
- Full time, insourced security stationed at schools at all times to prevent the immense vandalisation taking place.
- Free workplace or community-based childcare for all who are working.
- No person should go hungry when schools are closed – sufficient food and basic necessities to be distributed to all communities and households in need immediately and after the pandemic.
- Nationalise all private schools, abolish the fee and no-fee system in public schools. All school funding to be centralized and distributed according to need. All school facilities (fields, sports halls, auditoriums, etc) to be shared between all schools as needed. This system must be overseen by a committee democratically elected from school workers, parents and guardians, and student representatives. Full-time administrators must be paid the average salary of a skilled worker, and must be open to recall at any time.
In order to win these demands 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 many, not the profits of the few elites, 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 in South Africa. They also address broader socio-economic issues, such as unemployment and precarious employment, and can serve as a transitional bridge towards a socialist society free from exploitation.
International and working class solidarity
In the past three years we have witnessed workers in education rise up against austerity measures across the world. The crisis of capitalism in our schools is the same all over the world: overworked teachers, under resourced and overcrowded schools. #RedForEd in Arizona, USA started with a 75 000 strong teacher strike, which prompted and inspired more industrial action across the US.
Across the world last year, there have been similar nation-wide teachers’ strikes, in places like New Zealand and Zimbabwe. In the UK, schools are set to reopen on June 1st as well, with unions calling on education workers not to report to duty. We fully support our comrades across the world resisting the push from capitalist governments who shamelessly throw the working class under the bus. We further call for cross-border solidarity between all workers resisting the bosses’ greed during this pandemic. The working class, and our struggle for socialism, is international.
It should be up to workers at schools, both teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as the parents and guardians of learners to decide whether the schools in South Africa can safely be reopened. All schools must have an SRC elected by learners, which must also have input in all aspects of reopening of schools. Workers in all industries have to be the decision-makers on the so-called “reopening” of the economy. We cannot put that decision into the hands of a government that is heavily influenced by the interests of big business and their profits, instead of the lives and wellbeing of the majority.