Ethembeni Enrichment Centre, a school in a run-down part of Port Elizabeth, the largest city in Eastern Cape, South Africa's poorest province, has achieved a remarkable 100 percent pass rate for a dozen years. But officials from the education department, sent on a fact-finding mission to learn from the school's success, are running more than two hours late.
Irritation is discernible in the voice of school principal Elbe Malherbe - punctuality is one of the few rules that must be abided by teachers and pupils alike. "When ... [it's time to] start, you start," Malherbe told IRIN in clipped replies during a telephone interview. Then, in a sudden change of tone, she said: "I wish you could see through the phone what I am seeing."
It is the first day of applications for the 2011 school year and a woman in traditional Xhosa attire is filling out a form for her child. Ethembeni only accepts pupils whose mother tongue is Xhosa, which generally translates into poor and black. The annual school fees are R3,800 (US$506), excluding stationery.
Many poor parents make sacrifices to keep their children in school, but Malherbe believes in affordable - not free - education, because it is an "investment by pupils, parents and teachers [that] everyone must buy into".
The language of instruction is English. Apart from not brooking tardiness, the school's other non-negotiables are that class attendance is compulsory, home work must be completed, pupils must clean the classrooms and grounds every day, and parents must be involved in their child's education.
"The classrooms were barely furnished. The driveway to the school was a rocky, narrow passage ... The school hall was packed with a few hundred eager faces, the children virtually sitting on top of one another on the floor ... I saw struggle, hunger and poverty etched into each child's countenance," educationist and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen, recounted after a recent visit.
"For any child to pass under these difficult circumstances, it would take a miracle," he wrote. Yet nearly two-thirds of the 70 pupils in Ethembeni's 2009 matric, or final year, class achieved a university-entrance pass, while other financially comparable schools hung on at the bottom of the academic achievement ladder.
|We're not Einsteins here - we teach. It's nice to be part of a winning team. With nothing, you can still be successful if the heart is right and the spirit is right|
The school has no library, no science laboratory, although there is a computer that gives the 400 pupils internet access. The government pays for 11 of the 17 teachers; the salary shortfall of the six other teachers has to come out of the school fees.
The compactness of the school is part of its success. "In schools of a thousand [students], how can you know all the parents? If I have a problem with a child, or they have not done their homework, I phone their parents and they are here in five minutes," Malherbe said.
"We're not Einsteins here - we teach. It's nice to be part of a winning team. With nothing, you can still be successful if the heart is right and the spirit is right."
Ethembeni, which means "place of hope", swims against the prevailing national current in education, where standards have been steadily declining - in contrast to school fees.
More money, less education
The government's answer to the malaise is to throw more money into the education system; in the 2010/11 financial year it budgeted R165 billion (US$8.6 billion) for the sector, a 17 percent above inflation increase from the previous year.
The matric, or final high school exam, is used as a benchmark for the state of education in South Africa. Of the 550,227 pupils who wrote their final examinations in 2009, 61 percent passed, and 19.9 percent of those achieved the required marks to qualify for tertiary education.
Marius Roodt, an education analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a policy and research organization, told IRIN the current teaching standard was akin to Bantu education - the system imposed by apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who said blacks should only be educated to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water".
|In 2004 the pass rate was 71 percent, and it has been on a steady downward trend since then|
"It is very unlikely that there will be an increase in matric pass rates. In 2004 the pass rate was 71 percent, and it has been on a steady downward trend since then, with each year reflecting a decrease. This is a trend that is likely to continue into the future, at least in terms of the quality of the qualification," Roodt said.
He attributed the decline to the political influence of the 240,000-member South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the country's largest teacher union and an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is an alliance partner of the ruling African National Congress.
"An example was when the union encouraged members to campaign for President Jacob Zuma prior to last year's general election, instead of teaching," he said.
"Although teachers should be allowed to be unionized - like any profession in any democracy - the influence of SADTU is malignant and not benign. It is possible that SADTU has the interest of only its members at heart, and not that of the pupils in South Africa's schools," Roodt commented.
"The reintroduction of the 'school inspectors' system, which would greatly improve the quality of the country's teaching, has been resisted by SADTU for some time. The union has also opposed systems to monitor teacher performance," he said.
Zuma announced in his 2010 State of the Nation address that a system of oversight would be instituted to monitor schools and ensure that teachers were in class to teach.
SADTU spokesperson Nomusa Cembi told IRIN that the union objected to the reintroduction of school inspectors, and did "not know where the president got the information that teachers are only in class for three hours, or so, a day."
|Pupils at a Cape Town primary school|
Zuma first made the claim in a speech to school principals in KwaZulu-Natal Province, who gathered at the Durban International Convention Centre in August 2009. "We need to confront certain realities. For example, teachers in former whites-only schools teach in class for an average of 6.5 hours a day, while teachers in schools in disadvantaged communities teach for around 3.5 hours a day. The result is that the outcomes are unequal."
A recent survey published by Tokiso, an independent labour dispute resolution body, found that the teachers' union was responsible for 42 percent of all work days lost through industrial action between 1995 and 2009. Cembi said this gave the impression that SADTU members "strike at the drop of a hat".
Tanya Venter, CEO of Tokiso, told a local newspaper, Business Day, that SADTU's participation in the 2007 public sector strike was the main reason for the union recording such a high rate of absenteeism.
A recent World Bank working paper: No More Cutting Class? Reducing Teacher Absence and Providing Incentives for Performance, found "each additional 5 percent increase in teacher absence reduces learning by 4 to 8 percent of a year’s learning for the typical student."
Cembi said responsibility for the deterioration of education should be shared among learners, teachers, the education department and the government. She was unable to provide any data on whether or not a SADTU teacher had ever been dismissed for poor performance.
Zimbabwe's loss, South Africa's gain
Government has been widely blamed for creating a critical shortage of teachers trained in science and mathematics after it closed teacher training colleges in 2000 and put the onus on universities to produce educators. The government is now considering re-opening the teacher training colleges.
|We are eager to recruit more foreign teachers because of the shortages|
One solution has been to recruit teachers from Zimbabwe. Dickson Masemola, head of education in Limpopo Province, which borders Zimbabwe, said his department had hired 600 Zimbabwean educators to teach maths, science and commercial subjects, resulting in a turnaround in academic performance.
Mbali Thusi, a spokesman for the education department of KwaZulu-Natal, said a number of foreign teachers, especially in maths and science, were working in the province, and more would be hired because of the shortage of qualified teachers in these fields.
"The problem is more severe in rural schools - most maths and science teachers prefer to work in urban areas," Thusi said. "But we are eager to recruit more foreign teachers because of the shortages ... We have sent requesting documents to the national department to give us a go-ahead. We want to recruit hundreds of these teachers to plug the holes in our system."
The head of the KwaZulu-Natal School Governing Bodies Association, Reginald Cheliza, told IRIN: "We would like our children to succeed in school, but it is clear that this is not happening. Some of the problems start at school level, others at provincial or even national level."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions