Support for teachers goes all the way to the top

As South Africa celebrated World Teachers’ Day on 5 October, both President Zuma and Deputy President Ramaphosa expressed their unqualified support for the profession. This time round there are some encouraging signs that we will make some real progress.

In 1994, UNESCO and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) declared 5 October “World Teachers’ Day (WTD), to commemorate the signing of the UNESCO/ILO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Teachers in 1966. On 5 October this year, South Africa joined many other countries in celebrating the 20th anniversary of WTD, and we continue throughout the month of October to appreciate our Teachers.

Teaching plays a crucial social function in all societies, requiring a high degree of passion, commitment and skill based on a systematic body of knowledge. In his opening remarks to the 2014 South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) conference in October, President Jacob Zuma said, “Education is an important nation-building tool. It is a powerful instrument of inculcating in the young minds of our children the norms, culture, traditions and values of the new democratic society as we build a new nation... As teachers, the future of the country is thus in your hands. It is up to educators to produce these new South Africans and a new South Africa from the ashes of our tragic past.” Yet in South Africa, despite the important role teachers play, there is a pervasive negative public image of teaching and teachers. The profession does not enjoy public trust for a variety of reasons, some of which are grounded in fact, but many of which are not. Most teachers work tirelessly under challenging circumstances to manage a delicate classroom ecology in a demanding school environment.

In his address, the President also said, “Education is a societal issue. We cannot expect teachers to promote quality learning and teaching alone. All stakeholders, such as parents, school governing bodies, labour, learner representative structures, community structures and business must work together to promote effective learning and teaching. This notion of education as a societal matter is finding full expression in the National Education Collaboration Trust (the NECT) that we launched in July last year.”

All six teacher unions are members of the NECT, and have welcomed the collaborative strategy put in place to upgrade basic education. Although celebrating WTD is a welcome acknowledgement by government and the public sector of the importance of our teachers, remembering them on one day a year will not repair an educational system which needs urgent attention. Constant, concrete action is required if the NECT is to achieve its goals, particularly in the area of professionalising teaching. In a speech delivered at a fund-raising dinner at St John’s College in Mthatha in August this year, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned a 2007 study which indicated that top-performing schools achieve their results by concentrating on three key factors: getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors and ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

“These findings underlie our contention that transforming our education system requires a sustained focus on the quality of our teachers and principals,” he said. “Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are the solution to many of our problems. We need to restore the status of teachers in our communities. Teaching needs to once again become the favoured profession of capable, dedicated and ambitious young South Africans.” By ensuring dialogue and input from all stakeholders, the NECT plans to catalyse interventions in every aspect of education that needs attention, from school infrastructure, security and access to learning materials, to the professionalisation of teaching, and the quality of teaching, as well as community involvement to treat schools and teachers as the national treasures they are.

The NECT is not intended to usurp authority or responsibility in any area of education; it is a co-ordinating programme designed to channel the efforts of stakeholders towards a unified objective, by holding them accountable in their own areas of responsibility. Under the banner, “Our Teachers, Our Future!”, WTD also presented an opportunity to encourage awareness of and support for the NECT by government departments, teacher unions, the public sector, schools, teachers, parents, learners and traditional or community structures, throughout the month of October. “We need to build a capable generation that is armed with the knowledge, skills, cognitive ability and drive to elevate our productivity and improve our competitiveness,” the Deputy President concluded in his address.

In his opening remarks to the SADTU conference, President Zuma reiterated the NECT’s reliance on multi-stakeholder collaboration. “When I met with CEOs of top companies in the country in August this year, I requested the MECs for education to work with the business community in their provinces to support the work of the NECT, to replicate what is happening at the national level,” he said. “Through the Trust, which brings together stakeholders including business and labour, we are working together to achieve the education vision set out in the National Development Plan. Working with the educators, we have vowed to deal with some of the persistent structural problems in our education system and also restore the dignity of the teaching profession. The Mangaung conference of the ANC resolved that we should establish a presidential commission to review the remuneration and conditions of employment of education and health professionals... The commission, tasked with looking at the conditions of public servants, has been established and is headed by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo. Working together, we will take quality education to greater heights in our country.”

Of course we have heard politicians present rosy pictures before, but by all accounts the establishment and the progress that the NECT is making as a strong but non-partisan body, is a sign that the Unions, the Department of Basic Education and big business are collaborating and are putting their money where their mouths are. It’s a game changing project which we should both support and monitor closely.

© 2019 National Education Collaboration Trust