There’s no use reopening schools if there are no teachers

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There’s no use reopening schools if there are no teachers

Poorer schools are being forced to lay off huge swathes of teaching staff. This is a crisis the state has to address

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An education expert has proposed that well-funded schools, such as St Cyprian's in Cape Town, use their substantial resources to cover the salaries of SGB teachers at government institutions.
MEANS An education expert has proposed that well-funded schools, such as St Cyprian's in Cape Town, use their substantial resources to cover the salaries of SGB teachers at government institutions.
Image: Facebook

Warning. There is great despair among many of our teachers and the government is about to make it worse. I was invited to address school principals on a Zoom call the other day. About 90 leaders from around the country signed on, with 139 on a WhatsApp group. Their problem? They cannot meet the salary bill for the next few months. “I lose sleep, I stress, where is the money for the teachers going to come from? I am ready to resign.” This principal, from a school in an impoverished area, was not alone, as one after the other leader “unmuted” to unburden their hearts.

How did we get into this mess? As government departments were forced to cut their budgets, education was told it, too, had to “take a haircut” (not funny), said a senior education official I interviewed recently. This meant teacher posts had to be cut. In the case of “the mountain schools”, as one Zoom participant called the elite schools of Cape Town, they could easily make up the loss of revenue by raising school fees among middle class and wealthy parents. In fact, the mountain schools could hire teachers for specialist subjects, such as music, drama and fine arts, and qualified coaches for the various sporting codes.

For poor schools, government cuts meant reliance on low fees from parents who were either unemployed or barely able to feed their families. It also meant fundraising using all kinds of gimmicks to squeeze the last cent out of the working classes. With that trickle of income a few more teachers could be hired on what are called “school governing body” (SGB) posts — that is the school pays the extra teachers, not the government.

In this case, however, these extra teachers, poorly paid and without benefits, were used to teach essential subjects, such as languages and mathematics. But they had another function: they kept class sizes at about 40 children (already a calamity), especially in primary schools.

The school could not hold fundraisers and working parents were are out of work, out of money and under lockdown.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic and everything changed. The school could not hold fundraisers and working parents were out of work, out of money and under lockdown. Poor parents don’t do EFTs (as unscrupulous pastors are discovering, which is why they are summoning the faithful back to church with claims of power over the virus!).

When Ridwan Samodien, the principal of Kannemeyer Primary School (KPS) in Grassy Park, Cape Town, wakes up in the morning, he sees those classes of 40 becoming 80 children, because he has to let the extra teachers go. At KPS the school fees are a paltry R2,800 a child and in a bad year it collects a mere 40% of what is due. Samodien’s unpaid staff bill for this month stands at R52,427.66, including a teacher-librarian who is supposed to live off the disgraceful sum of R3,600 a month. They are all about to be dismissed.

This is outrageous. I call on government to act with urgency on the matter by doing two things. Determine the scale of the problem and give each poor school sufficient funding for the remainder of the year, on an exceptional basis. It can be done. Redirect funds from existing budgetary sources to pay teachers. Bring forward payments due under the norms & standards facility. Help schools access TERS funding, a benefit under the UIF that offers “emergency relief to employers so that they can pay employees during a temporary layoff” (Legal Wise).

Paying these teachers is, sadly, the last thing on the mind of our government’s education department. What it is fretting about is rushing teachers back to work to salvage the academic year. When this happens, the department will stare two hard realities in the face. The SGB teachers will be gone and many government-paid teachers will be at home because, under the terms of reopening, they suffer from co-morbidities, such as diabetes and hypertension. You do not need to be an education planner to know that our schools are facing chaos.

Instead of waiting for government to find its conscience, ordinary citizens must jump into action.

Louis van Rhyn heads an NGO called Partners for Possibility to assist principals with information on funding SGB teachers. Bruce Probyn of The Principals’ Academy made an important proposal: How about a well-funded school, like one of my favourites, St Cyprian’s in Cape Town, using its substantial resources (school fees for seniors R128,000 a year) to cover the salaries of SGB teachers at KPS until the end of this school year? This is how the privileged classes can help chip away at the inequalities laid bare by the coronavirus.

In the meantime, what we all can do is raise awareness of the dismal plight of our governing body teachers. I am off to call Carte Blanche.

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