Winter School
Winter School

In need of a little… inspiration

Submitted by Anthea Garman.

In what is becoming an interesting Winter School tradition, the Legal Resources Centre convened another panel to talk about the realisation of our constitutional rights. This year it was to discuss our progress on the right to education. The centre invited Mary Metcalfe, head of the Wits School of Education, the education department’s DG Duncan Hindle, and Joey Hassan of the activist organisation Equal Education (affiliated to the TAC), to debate this with a vociferous audience full of teachers, education activists and theorists.

Judge Dennis Davis, who’s as good at stirring debate (remember that TV show he once hosted) as he is at judging, did the dirty job of chairing the discussion and forcing the hard questions to be thoroughly engaged with and answered.

Hindle, to his credit as a government official, does not shy away from the contentious issues and is even ready to dish out his cellphone number to teachers needing his help to unknot a particular bit of DOE bureaucracy getting in their way (which he did on this occasion too for a new teacher who told him she was being forced into allocating 75% of her time to administration and giving a third of what was left to controlling a class).

Essentially Hindle charted up the education gains in this country by saying that what used to be 17 different systems of education in this country are now under one department; for the first time ever we have one single curriculum (with 29 subjects) and that the department is keeping a beady eye on quality of education and learner performance through a series of surveys (both their own and international ones). It’s hard not to be impressed by just how hands-on and aware he seems to be as a DG.

But none of this impressed Mary Metcalfe who, while still being gracious, pointed out that all this massive social engineering had seriously undermined respect for, and the confidence of, teachers themselves. She prodded Hindle to admit that the last 14 years have horribly burdened them with all sorts of complex bureaucratic demands and made them feel powerless and responsible for the mess we’re in. Teachers in the audience reacted to this by telling their own stories of frustration and anger, and even resignation. One person nearing retirement age had given up last year as had five others at her school. The final straw: Being told what to do in the most pedantic way when you’ve been teaching all your life and suddenly the “love and joy and the fire are gone” she said. Metcalfe insisted that the department had to think again about injecting “hope and inspiration” into the system.

Joey Hassan was the person bringing into the debate the dimension of activism and community involvement. Not only have teachers had their confidence damaged, but parents and communities feel excluded from education processes, he said. In Khayalitsha, Equal Education is working to change that.

There was a fractious moment when various audience members sought Davis’ advice as a legal person about the value of taking government to court when, for instance, their schools had no maths teachers, or money owed to a school didn’t come from the provincial department. And it was interesting that almost all present agreed that the TAC had shown the way to get government action by a combination of litigation and popular mobilisation.

There was also an interesting discussion between the audience and Metcalfe about the fragility of Model C schools, which (as Hindle acknowledged) are still really the only places in the educational system where racial integration is happening. Again, they have been maligned as elite places, but now the DOE is paying attention and seeing that they are valuable spaces in the whole system.

Metcalfe summed it all up very neatly when she concluded: “We need hope and inspiration. We need a new sense of activism. This will not happen through resurrection of the old structures. It must all happen in a much more inclusive way. We have to broaden the base. We must look at education with fresh eyes.”