If you can understand this sentence you’re probably not an SA teacher

My wish for this June 16 is that we all rise up against ignorance and stupidity being the primary medium of instruction.

I remember feeling all sorts of things towards my teachers growing up – mostly terror, because of how often they liked to smack us around – but I can’t remember genuinely feeling that any of them was a complete idiot.

I was especially blessed with a number of inspiring English teachers, who instilled in me an appreciation and a love of language, and set me on the path to what I do for a living today.

However, I realise I was immensely privileged. Although I went only to government schools, I was lucky that even though the fees were not very high, the standards always were. I never once had to question the dedication and professionalism of any of my teachers – at least not in any serious way.

My experience appears to be one that’s not widely shared by pupils in many of our government schools 24 years into democracy, and 42 years after the June 16 protests in Soweto.

Earlier this year, there were reports that most of the teachers who took part in a sample survey on the national school curriculum were unable to identify the main idea in a paragraph, or do a simple maths calculation.

The department of planning, monitoring and evaluation – a ministry now headed up by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – uncovered this when doing elementary tests in English first additional language and maths.

They looked at 35 high school teachers and 22 primary school teachers from 24 of the poorest schools in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, interviewing them and observing them giving lessons.

They found that only five of the 22 primary school teachers could identify the main idea in a simple paragraph and only six could do a simple calculation. Some of the teachers scored as low as 10% for English as a second language, and were twice as bad in maths.

Their average score for being able to describe a family member in a few sentences was 44%.

The researchers also noted that teachers’ schedules were often interrupted by workshops, union meetings, choir competitions and memorial services. One in five teachers was not even in class when researchers visited their schools.

If you think this was just a small sample, you’d be correct, except the findings simply confirmed lots of other research on South African teachers. In 2012, for example, a report by the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality found that less than a third of South African maths teachers actually understood maths.

To contrast that, in Kenya, the same study found that 90% of maths teachers knew their subject well. In Zimbabwe, it was at more than 76%. The conclusion must be that it is probably better to have your child go to school in Harare than Harrismith.

When I wrote about this same thing three years ago, I concluded that apartheid remains alive and well as long as most poor and black people are subjected to wasting their formative years in union-dominated schools that don’t allow for any enforcement of standards, and as long as most better-off white people can either pay for private schooling or benefit from public schools still run by decent headmasters who didn’t pay teachers’ union Sadtu R30 000 for their jobs.

Since then, nothing much has changed.

Sadtu still refuses to allow its members to be subjected to standardised tests. Last year, Angie Motshekga’s basic education department expressed its intent to finally start giving school principals competency tests as a basic condition of their employment.

Sadtu bitterly opposed even such a small attempt to impose standards. You’d think a principal’s ability to do the job would be a prerequisite for him or her getting the job, but no. The union, which has huge power over the ANC through the tripartite alliance, continues to maintain the lie that testing teachers is demeaning.

What is truly demeaning is ignorance and incompetence itself.

In the meantime, we lose the potential of generation after generation of young people who deserve a decent education.

I realise our challenges with schooling go beyond the teachers themselves – but they wouldn’t be a bad place to start. They need to be trained and retrained to the point where the results we start seeing will not only benefit individual children but place the country on an upward growth path to provide a decent return for all the money we’re spending on putting our kids in schools.

And, oh, if you’re a South African teacher who’s read this far and you’re feeling offended by what you perceive to be my unjustified generalisations about you and your colleagues, then well done. You are not the teacher I’m writing about. And yes, I realise you’re probably overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. My mother is a teacher. I know.

When the youth of 1976 protested against Afrikaans being used as the primary medium of instruction 42 years ago, they were justified in demanding to be taught in the medium of their choice after identifying the source of their oppression.

For this June 16, though, my wish is that the youth, parents, and all of us, can rise up yet again and protest once more – but this time against stupidity itself being forced upon us as the primary medium of instruction.

There is nothing more oppressive than being governed by the tyranny of the inept.

Otherwise, as my friend with a bad lisp might put it, Youth Day may as well be youthleth day.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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