This open letter is reprinted without permission from the Times website. I feel very strong about education, and Prof Jansen is one of the few voices that speak with authority about education in South Africa. For real practical solutions I highly recommend the work of John Taylor Gatto.
Desperation is an emotion I seldom feel, except in relation to education, for I believe very deeply that for most of our children, a solid school education represents the only means available for ending the cycle of family poverty. Skills come later. Economic growth even later. Social cohesion lies far in the distance. What matters is that children complete 12 years of schooling with the ability to read, write, reason, calculate and express confidence for purposes of further studies, skills training and higher education.
At various moments during your leadership, I have been encouraged, sir, by your standpoint on education. You are absolutely correct to insist on teachers being in school, teaching, every day. You are right, of course, to insist on materials being available for learning. You cannot be faulted for requiring performance contracts from the ministers who report to you on progress in education. Your own biography as a man who has sacrificed his own schooling in that broader quest for liberation, is something I admire.
The problem, Mr President, is the distance between what you stand for and the day-to-day operations of schools in our country.
Unlike most of your MECs for education, I do not for one moment believe the crisis in schooling lies inside the schools themselves. Having visited thousands of schools over the past decades, and having spoken to (and taught) thousands of pupils across the nine provinces, I can assure you that the children are the least of your problems.
With the right leadership and authority in place, with enthusiastic teachers ready to teach, and with organisational routines (starting on time, homework every day, solid teaching, and so on) running like clockwork, children anywhere in the world respond positively to the efforts of adults to educate them. So, I am not speaking about the children.
It is clear to me that at the moment the control of schools does not rest with government. It rests with the teacher unions. Until this simple fact is acknowledged, it is impossible to create the kinds of conditions in and around schooling that provide for predictable teaching timetables and powerful learning environments.
This is, I know, difficult terrain for public discussion. After all, the largest teachers’ union is part of the massive labour federation, which has a critical role in who stays in or comes to power in the next rounds of election.
But, Mr President, I believe you can and should look beyond the politics of succession that comes in five-year cycles, and look to the long-term development of the country and the prospects of tens of thousands of youth who routinely fail examinations every year and who fuel the numbers of frustrated youth who turn on society and themselves. This is the single most important challenge you face, and it cannot be resolved by pedagogical means, only through political intervention.
To signal your seriousness about this crisis, Sir, I propose you appoint an “Education Crisis Panel of Experts” to guide you and our government on how to resolve the education standoff as a matter of urgency. Please do not appoint activists to this panel, unless they are also experts; and do not see these appointments as ways of rewarding loyalty in the past or present; there are other commissions that can and have achieved such objectives.
Ensure, Mr President, that these are people who actually know how to turn around schools, and who are unlikely to tell you what you want to hear. You made an excellent start by hiring Dr Cassius Lubisi as your director general; I have worked with him for many years. You will not find a person of greater integrity, passion and insight. Perhaps he could chair the panel.
I propose, if I may, the following names: Linda Vilikazi-Tselane, Muavia Gallie, Anita Maritz, James Letuka, Brian Isaacs, Sibusiso Maseko, Nontsha Liwane-Mazengwe, Stephen Lowry, Sharon Lewin, Itumeleng Molale and Margerida Lopez. These are some of the most hardworking principals and education thinkers I have ever known.
They boast track records of success in changing schools. These are among finest South African educators when it comes to love of school and country.
They are fiercely independent in thinking, and unsentimental in their ideas about the bottom line: the learning achievements of our children.
Mr President, I wait to hear from you.