Class and the Classroom

In 2009, in the Western Cape, 2.1% of grade 6 students in previously black schools passed the province-wide systemic numeracy test. The pass-rate in the more integrated previously white public schools was just over 60%.

By 2013 the results were no longer disaggregated by the former racial classification of schools, but by quintiles, the five groups into which schools are divided by relative poverty. Just 8,2% of learners in the poorest quintile passed the test, compared to 54% in the wealthiest quintile.

These moments of data beckon us to an important discussion, one that we seldom have.

We usually look at the problems in education through the lens of government non-delivery: furniture absent from Eastern Cape classrooms, libraries neglected in Western Cape schools, and school toilets collapsed in over-crowded Gauteng. These crises are indeed indicative of a state straining – or not straining enough – to carry out its basic responsibilities. When Equal Education insisted on norms and standards to guarantee these things it encountered the anger of politicians, but it did not provoke social controversy. Almost everyone, across social classes, agreed that learners must be provided these necessities.

Many of the struggles to improve education have been – and will continue to be – of this sort.

However, an exclusive focus on government non-delivery tends to push the effects of social inequality to the background. In fact social inequality places a glass ceiling above government’s efforts to improve delivery of education. It makes it difficult to provide a quality education for all and undermines the effectiveness of education in poor schools.

The modern ruling class values education for all. They understand that society needs the productive contributions – not to mention the taxes – of a skilled workforce. But they also understand that there are limited opportunities for material success, and that education is the gateway to these. They must therefore see that their children receive a superior education.

The relevance of this observation becomes clearer when we compare education to healthcare. You’re either suffering some form of ill-health or you’re not. Health is objective. More healthcare will make one healthier, just as better education makes one better educated. But a doctor can assess my health independently from assessing yours.

But what does it  mean to be well educated? Certainly it means numeracy, proficiency in reading and writing, computer literacy, and the ability to reason and problem-solve. But in an economy where employment is scarce and competitive, we tend to measure our education against that of others. So education, unlike health, becomes relative rather than objective. The way we relate to education is increasingly about comparing ourselves to others.

This curious feature of education is sometimes explained by calling education a “positional good”. There is no point paying R200,000 for a Breitling watch if everyone has one. From the point of view of the guy with the Breitling watch, the less people that have one the better. Breitling watches are positional goods. Education, thought of as a ticket to employment, is a little like that. It is prized because it puts us ahead of others.

This may sound bizarre, but think for a second about the parents paying R168,140 a year to send a child to Bishops Diocesan College.  Why do they do it? Partly, I am sure, because it is a nourishing schooling experience. But perhaps also because they believe the investment will be repaid, many times over, in increased earning opportunities throughout the child’s life. If, however, children in all schools in South Africa were getting a Bishops education it would be senseless to spend that money, and nobody would.

The economist JK Galbraith made this point in his 1958 book, ‘The Affluent Society’. The book argued that the post-World War II United States was becoming wealthy in the private sector but remained poor in the public sector, lacking social and physical infrastructure, and perpetuating inequality. Galbraith explained that private goods are more positional than public goods. In other words, when something is more equally available to all, people tend to hoard it less. But in an unequal society, where access and quality must be purchased at a price, there is a competitive struggle.

This is a well-known feature of private property: it is rooted in scarcity. This applies to education, which is increasingly central to the perpetuation of social classes and the distribution of resources in society.

In South Africa we have two related challenges in education. There is the enormous task of eradicating backlogs and putting in place a system that provides an education to every child. Progress in this regard has and is being made. And doing so ameliorates inequality. But we also need to engage unequal education more directly, as a social question. It is not enough to imagine the education challenge only as a bureaucratic, governmental one.

In our system there is no incentive scheme to attract strong teachers to low-income schools. Most talented teachers seek jobs in well-resourced middle-class schools, not the townships where they are most needed. Of course there are exceptions. The parental governing bodies of township and rural schools are usually not peopled by those with university degrees or professional careers. A poorer school’s top students may disappear on scholarships to institutions beyond the township border. This engine of educational inequality provides precious opportunities for some, but also entrenches poverty and disadvantage for the majority who remain behind.

Young people who don’t have books in their homes, who do not have the option of private after-school tutors, whose educationally dispossessed parents struggle to help them with homework, and who often don’t have a room in which to sit and do their homework, need far greater educational investment than those with these advantages. And yet they attend schools where class-sizes are larger, teachers are less proficient, and stocked libraries and laboratories are a rarity. This is strongly apparent in the Western Cape, although public education is more efficiently administered.

EE’s current mobilization in Cape Town, part of which will be a rally against educational inequality on 31 October in Wale Street, seeks to unlock this debate.

Drawing on experiences in schools across the peninsula, equalisers are insisting upon a range of measures including dignified sanitation, upgraded school infrastructure, quality teaching and textbooks, computer centres, libraries and laboratories, fair treatment for girls who fall pregnant, access to condoms and sex education, and above all safe schools and regular after-school programs. They are presently engaged in campaigns on these and other issues, in their own schools. They’re raising these as constituent elements of an unequal education system.

To put apartheid behind us, we have to reverse decades of deliberately unequal resource allocation. Doing so means thinking about education as a shared social good, as something treasured for its own sake, as the vital ingredient in the development of human personality. And we are all familiar with that idea of education – it is close at hand.


Doron Isaacs is Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education. The organisation is marching to the Western Cape Provincial Legislature today.

Reconciliation for South Africa’s education system

This journal article is written by Eleanor DuPlooy , Stan Henkeman and Ayanda Nyoka and was originally published in Lline.

The article speaks about how an unequal past has hampered on Education and how to bring true reconciliation, Education is one of the key things to be transformed.

Read below the profiles of the authors:

Eleanor DuPlooy
Eleanor du Plooy is Project Leader for the Ashley Kriel Youth Leadership Development Project. She attended Stellenbosch University and majored in Anthropology, English and Psychology. Her anthropological training and extensive experience doing fieldwork have equipped her with the skills to interact with a wide range of people on various issues. She believes in the transformative power of the youth and through her work at IJR endeavours to provide platforms through which they can make their voices heard. As an expressionist, she values the importance of dialogue and recognises the need to engage in meaningful exchanges, particularly with those who we have come to view as different from ourselves. When Eleanor is not working she enjoys spending her time hiking, reading, and writing poetry.
Stan Henkeman
Stanley Henkeman heads the Building an Inclusive Society Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He previously worked as a teacher, lecturer and manager. Stanley has extensive experience in facilitating learning. He is equally comfortable and effective with grassroots and sophisticated audiences. Stanley played a pivotal role as facilitator/mediator in the xenophobic crisis in the Western Cape between May and November 2008. He holds an MA Degree and is currently the Chair of the Western Province Transplant Sports Association and Vice-Chair of the national body. He also represented South Africa as an athlete at two World Transplant Games. Contact:
Ayanda Nyoka
Ayanda Nyoka started her career in the IT sector where she gained seven years of extensive experience in project management, development of business information systems and business/systems analysis. She describes herself as a change agent and, in 2004, took a gap year to work with school youth from underprivileged background as a volunteer. From this experience she developed an interest in the field of social justice and now works as a project leader for the Inclusive Economies Project at the IJR. In addition to her IT qualification, she holds a BA degree with majors in Political Studies and English Literature from the University of the Western Cape, where she received a number of academic awards and in 2008 was selected to participate in the US Young Student Leaders academic exchange programme, focusing on the Civil Rights Movement. She also holds a post-graduate degree (Political Science) from the University of Cape Town and is currently working on her Masters dissertation, focusing on youth partisan attitudes in South Africa.

Are South African Teachers Resistant or Receptive to Accountability?

Attached is an issue paper written by Warren Chalklen, he describes himself as a passionate educator and servant of South Africa.

Warren is currently completing his doctorate degree in education at Texas A&M University in the United States, focusing on gender and race in South African education. His work cuts across a variety of issues, and his latest work particularly scrutinizes state accountability for teachers in the country.

Hope you enjoy the read and that this creates much debate!

Issue Paper Chalklen (2)

Fighting for decent toilets in Gauteng schools

On 13 September Equal Education marched in Johannesburg for decent school sanitation in Gauteng. Brad Brockman, the organisation’s General Secretary, explains the campaign.

About 2,000 students and parents from Tembisa, Kwa Thema, Daveyton and Tsakane attended the march to the Gauteng Department of Education’s (GDE) offices in central Johannesburg, where a memorandum was handed over to the MEC for Education, Panyaza Lesufi.

Equal Education Gauteng has been campaigning for improved school sanitation in the province for over a year. The campaign originated in the Tembisa youth group, where members first raised the issue because it affects their education, health and dignity.

In August and September last year, our members did a two-week sanitation audit of 11 of the 13 high schools in Tembisa, noting the conditions in their toilets twice a day for this whole period. They found that in over half the schools, more than 100 students had to share a single, working toilet. This formed the evidence base of the campaign, and its accuracy – as well as that of subsequent research – has been a key strength of our demands.

We presented this research to the local District Director, Mr Ephraim Tau, and to former Gauteng MEC for Education Barbara Creecy, and demanded that they provide urgent relief to schools in Tembisa, as well as provide a long-term plan to address the crisis.

After not getting any response from the Gauteng Department of Education, and despite the District Director acknowledging that our characterisation of the situation in Tembisa was accurate, we went public on World Toilet Day, 19 November 2013. Our press release on that day pointed out that in the overcrowded Johannesburg Medium A Prison, 65 men share a single working toilet, as opposed to over 100 students in Tembisa high schools. The release generated widespread media coverage and spurred MEC Creecy to take action.

A meeting was held between Equal Education and the MEC on 26 November. At the meeting MEC Creecy said that she would address the situation in Tembisa at the start of the next year, and that she had also a long-term sanitation plan for schools in Tembisa. However, the MEC refused to share this plan with us, despite our following up in writing with her about this afterwards.

On 12 January 2014, MEC Creecy visited Masiqhakaze High School in Tembisa to clean toilets there, and to announce that she would be delivering ten pre-fabricated toilet blocks to five schools in Tembisa, and an additional ten to other schools in Gauteng. She also said that she would be sending contractors to repair toilets in Tembisa, as well as to 60 other schools in Gauteng.

The toilet blocks were delivered in Tembisa, and contractors did come out and do some repairs at schools in the area. However, by the time MEC Creecy left her post in May the toilet blocks were still not open, and many schools in the area were still in need of urgent sanitation repairs. MEC Creecy had also not developed a long-term sanitation plan for Tembisa or Gauteng.

Photo courtesy of Equal Education.

In the interim, our members (both students and parents) ran sanitation workshops for over 5,000 students to raise awareness about the need to keep school toilets clean. They also started establishing or, where necessary, revitalising school Environment Committees. These are committees of students, parents and teachers in Tembisa responsible for monitoring the school environment, including toilets.

Panyaza Lesufi took over as Gauteng MEC for Education at the end of May. He had previously worked as the Minister of Education spokesperson, and in that capacity had disagreed with and publicly attacked Equal Education on many occasions. He is also originally from Tembisa.

On 8 July our Gauteng leaders, Adam Bradlow and Tshepo Motsepe, met with the new MEC to introduce themselves, hear about his plans for Gauteng and raise the school sanitation crisis in Tembisa with him directly. Lesufi promised to get back to us by 14 July on the situation in Tembisa, and said that he would unblock all school toilets in Gauteng by 31 August – the end of his first 100 days in office. On 15 July, at a public event in Tembisa where Lesufi announced his plans for Gauteng education, he repeated his promise to unblock all toilets by 31 August.

In the weeks thereafter, we followed up with MEC Lesufi, writing him two letters, phoning and emailing officials in his office. However, we got no response. In August, our members in Kwa-Thema and Daveyton also did a sanitation audit in their schools. This audit showed that on any given day, up to 80 toilets were blocked or closed in these areas. On 1 September, we sent a letter to MEC Lesufi stating that since he was ignoring us, we would be marching to his office on 13 September. In the two weeks that followed equalizers in Tembisa reported contractors arriving overnight at their schools, cleaning and unblocking toilets, opening the pre-fabricated toilet blocks, fixing the pipes, painting the walls, fitting new taps and windows. Contractors were also seen on the premises at a few of the schools in Kwa-Thema and Daveyton.

On 11 September, two days before our march, MEC Lesufi called a special press conference in Tembisa, where he announced that he had identified 580 schools in Gauteng for sanitation repairs – at a cost of R150 million – and that since he had taken office, the Gauteng education department had completed repairs at 400 of these schools. The MEC also said that all 51 schools in Tembisa would have their sanitation upgraded, and that he would not only be accepting the memorandum at Equal Education’s march, but that he would be marching with us because he agreed with our demands.

On Friday morning, the day before the Saturday march, our Gauteng leadership met with the MEC at his office, at his invitation. At the meeting the MEC presented a progress report on the GDE’s sanitation work, including a full and detailed schedule of their plans for Tembisa.

Our Gauteng members put great effort into organising the march, which went smoothly. MEC Lesufi, who had joined the march, and even donned an Equal Education T-shirt, accepted the memorandum before offering a response to the crowd.

Our memorandum credited the MEC for engaging with us in a constructive and positive manner, and prioritising the issue of school sanitation through his stated allocation of R150 million to address the issue. We acknowledged the work that the department had already done to fix school sanitation in Tembisa, where the campaign originated.

However, we also demanded that he release the names of the 580 schools identified for sanitation upgrades, including information about what the 400 schools he said had already been upgraded have received, and what the rest of the schools will receive and by when. We reiterated our demand for a long-term plan to address the sanitation crisis in all Gauteng schools, which would include defining an appropriate standard, setting time-frames for implementation and doing all of this in a transparent and accountable manner.

It is clear that what started off as the Tembisa sanitation campaign has been successful. It has succeeded in getting the MEC to direct R150 million towards improving sanitation in township schools in Gauteng, and making the issue a serious policy priority for the department.

The campaign has already delivered tangible results to students in Tembisa, and, if MEC Lesufi is correct, already in a total of 400 schools in Gauteng. If all 580 schools have their sanitation upgraded, about 600,000 students will benefit directly from our activism. The success of this campaign was due to a number of reasons. We took the right issue, one that our members and other students feel strongly about, and on which tangible action can be taken. We conducted rigorous research into the situation at schools, and developed an understanding of the underlying factors, as well as what interventions could remedy the situation. We made an effort to inform and involve our members throughout. This included getting them to do research, clean toilets, and educate and mobilise other students. We articulated the issues clearly and powerfully, in a way that resonates with ordinary people. And our demands are practicable. We made effective use of the media. We also persisted, even when prospects for success looked doubtful. Finally we mobilised our members, bringing them onto the streets in a powerful show of force this past weekend.

There are things which we should have done differently and better. For example, considering the impact Saturday’s march had on MEC Lesufi, we should probably have brought our members out on the street earlier, even when MEC Creecy was still in office.

Lastly, the Gauteng school sanitation campaign has shown how to build on the momentum and legal requirements of the Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure, which came into force at the end of November 2013. Every province is required to ensure that all schools with no sanitation have this by 2016, and that all schools are up to the appropriate standard of sanitation by 2020. But we aren’t waiting for these deadlines. In addition to pushing each province to table its implementation plan by November this year, we are already campaigning for the practical realisation of the norms and standards, on the ground. That’s what this campaign is about.

The official blog of Equal Education


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