Can’t teach ‘cattle’

Keith Blake, Ottery

A few days ago there was a rumour or maybe fake news on social media in regard to allegations that there was going to be a lowering of the school pass rate percentage in our education system.

What then struck me as strange on the education road is that I was asked on July 4 to pop in at the Bruce Road civic centre in Ottery on July 5 as there was a project being undertaken in regard to disadvantaged school children in all grades who cannot read or write properly and not to mention the absence of mathematics.

Before I took that step I decided to do some intelligence gathering and went on Facebook to ask if anyone in the teaching profession could contact me in regards to the present education system taking place in our schools.

To my surprise, I made contact with a teacher who informed me that children are not getting the proper education due to the large number of children herded in classrooms and this was robbing them of the quality education they are constitutionally entitled to.

I made a comment that you can teach a few cows but you cannot teach a herd of cattle which is what is allegedly happening and no one let me repeat that.

On Wednesday July 5, I arrived at the Bruce Road civic centre and quietly entered the community hall and saw children writing on pieces of torn paper on writing desks. This is when I met poet Shaun Warner and his wife Vanessa and was told they are in every day offering children the following: after-school literacy, numeracy, life skills, spelling and to promote a culture of learning and they were doing this under their project called Ottery Poetry Initiative (“Ottery children get literacy boost”, Southern Mail, July 12).

Shaun discovered that the children in all grades cannot read or write properly and he has taken it upon himself to teach them. He also stated that they had children aged 15 and 16 but they left the project because they were embarrassed to be so big but cannot read and write properly.

I then asked him why were the children writing on pieces of paper and he responded that they have no stationery so they get a book and tear out the pages so the children can write on. Then I was told that this poor education plays a major role towards social ills, the teachers cannot cope, some kids are put over to the next grade but by the time they reach high school they cannot cope with their studies and become early drop-outs and some then turn to gangsterism or drugs.

Those in power have to initiate quality education as just maybe one day the 1976 riots and unrests come back to bite those who think they are educating cattle.

* Bronagh Casey, head of office for education MEC Debbie Schäfer, responds:

Improving the literacy and numeracy skills of our pupils is of utmost importance to us. It is our top priority in terms of our strategic goals. In order to assess the levels of literacy and numeracy in this province, the Western Cape conducts systemic testing for language and maths in Grade 3, 6, and 9 each year. We use the systemic tests to design our improvement strategies and specific interventions and training programmes for schools and teachers. This has led directly to some of the improvements that we see in the system.

Since 2012, we have seen improvements in both maths and language results in our schools based on these tests. For example, Grade 6 mathematics improved from 26.4% in 2012 to 40.1% in 2016, and Grade 9 from 26.4% in 2012 to 40.1% in 2016. In language, Grade 3 results increased from 38.9% in 2012 to 42.5% in 2016, and in Grade 9, from 48.2% in 2012 to 55.1% in 2016. (The WCED defines a pass as 50% for the purposes of the test.)

While these increases show that our interventions are working, we are well aware that we still have a lot of work to do in this area. The WCED has provided reports to every participating school, which they can now use to inform their school improvement plans for 2017. It will also inform our strategies for development and training.

We are aware that some of our classrooms are full. Unfortunately, Mr Blake doesn’t give specific examples for us to investigate as there are various factors that can contribute to overcrowding. However, in general, we have over the past few years faced the challenge of more pupils entering the system and a financially constrained budget that doesn’t allow for the employment of teachers to keep up with this demand.

Each year, the MEC of Education is required, by law, to determine the educator post establishment of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) for the following year. This is based on many factors, but most importantly, available budget. Unfortunately, the final negotiated wage increases agreed upon by the national government and the unions two years ago severely impacted our budget. The increases in the Improvement of Conditions of Service (ICS) for public servants were well above the rate of inflation and included increases in employees salaries, medical aid benefits (28.5% increase) and housing allowances (adjusted from R900 to R1 200 a month). Despite making provision for an increase in the ICS in our budget, we did not expect such dramatic increases.

We were faced with a minimum shortfall of R1.3 billion. With this, we needed to sustain our teaching corps, continue funding programmes that assist our poorer pupils and deliver on our strategic goals. Through savings in other areas, in 2015 we managed to cover our shortfall and increase the basket by only six posts for 2016, with a total educator establishment of 32 039. In 2016, we were faced with another funding shortfall of approximately R224 million on personnel expenditure alone. With having already cut costs the previous year this was to be a challenge. We were faced with the prospect of decreasing the educator basket instead of increasing or maintaining it. After considering all areas of spending that was not already committed, and after painstaking consultations with the relevant directorates on spending in various areas, the WCED managed to avoid having to cut the basket last year. We simply cannot afford as a government – both provincially and nationally – the increases that have been ‘bestowed’ upon us through the ICS negotiations. Ideally, we would want to provide more educators in our schools, but we cannot do so at this stage at the expense of providing other essential services such as infrastructure, maintenance, pupil transport and Norms and Standards funding for schools.