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EDUCATION: Education Stakeholders Now Sing from the Same Hymn Sheet


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Education Stakeholders Now Sing From The Same Hymn Sheet

Sizwe Nxasana, Chairperson of the National Education Collaboration Trust, says its role is not to run education, but to support government in improving the quality of education in South Africa.

As the CEO of FirstRand Limited, Sizwe Nxasana is a well-known figure in South African business. But when speaking as Chairperson of the National Education Collaboration Trust (the NECT), he makes it very clear he isn’t wearing his business hat – while business, in the form of Business Leadership South Africa and its members, is fully behind the NECT, the Trust itself has no allegiance to any one of the stakeholders that the NECT draws together. “The role the NECT can play is reinforced by the fact that we represent a cross section of the key stakeholders,” he says. “It is a platform that can be used to reopen conversations that have become stuck over the years, because we aren’t aligned to any of the stakeholders, be it government, business or the unions. It’s a neutral platform that is hopefully not threatening to any of the stakeholders. It’s not our job to take over, but we do facilitate robust and honest dialogue between stakeholders who may not be dealing with key issues.”

The NECT grew out of discussions held with Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, which led to a foundation dialogue in December 2012. Further discussion led to the formation of the NECT, and the launch earlier this year of its programmes into eight of the country’s school districts. These districts represent 18% of public schools in the country, and NECT has plans to roll the programme out to all districts over time. It aims to bring government, teachers and teacher unions, academics, business, parents, learners and community, traditional and religious institutions together to facilitate concerted action to improve basic education across the board. “These days, I have only three priorities: spending time with my family, my work at FirstRand, and fixing education,” he says. “We agree that government has made great strides since 1994, in securing access to education for all South Africans, but government needs all stakeholders to put their shoulders to the wheel to rapidly improve the quality of education. As admitted in the National Development Plan when it prioritised education, ‘we need active citizens and a collective effort.’ ”

He sees the issue as more than a matter of social morality – it is also a business imperative. “Sustainable economic development is impossible, and mass unemployment insurmountable, unless we have a properly educated population. In this country – the timeframe that the NECT believes will be required to make the significant changes required to complete the ‘quality of education’ job. One of the NECT’s key pillars is the professionalisation of teaching – pre ’94 the government effectively ignored the professional development of 90% of South Africa’s teachers. In fact one could be forgiven for believing that the infrastructure and quality difference between former White schools and Black schools was overt and deliberate. The teacher unions were the ones that must be given lots of credit for setting up continuous professional education programmes during that time dedicated to improve teaching standards. The fact that the same unions also had to represent their members in collective bargaining with the primary employer has made this role more complex as the teaching environment transformed and the SACE act of 2000 established a professional teacher’s body.

“Part of the problem is that there are some intractable issues that have not been dealt with,” Nxasana says. “Some have to do with things that government must sort out, some with things that the unions must sort out, some have to do with the South African Council of Educators (SACE), and some with the relationship between the unions as representatives of teachers, government as the employer and SACE as the professional body and some have to do with increasing parental and community involvement in education. I think the NECT can play a role in putting these discussions that have not taken place on the agenda, especially given that the professionalisation of teaching is one of the NECT’s agreed core programmes. We need to interact with government, unions and the South African Council for Educators (SACE) individually, but also as a collective, to sort out what SACE should be and the standards to which it should be accountable. There needs to be agreement of what professionalisation of teaching really means.”

A certain amount of discussion about the structure and performance objectives of SACE has happened ever since it was made independent of the Education Labour Relation Council. This is normal for a new body, but 10 years down the road these discussions must become agreements and SACE needs to get on with achieving what needs to be a clear mandate – and it needs to be held accountable by its members like any other professional body; there is a general belief that SACE requires greater independence – from government and unions alike – if it is to serve teachers and teaching in the same way that other professional bodies (in law, accounting and medicine, for example) serve their respective professions.

“The depoliticisation of SACE is a hot potato, but it has to be addressed,” Nxasana admits. “I think the NECT is in a very advantageous position to act as a catalyst; to put on the table the issue of where SACE should be, particularly in the context of the professionalisation of teaching and continuous professional education for teachers. There are issues outstanding that require discussion, that have not taken place for many years. It produces confusion and in the worst case, paralysis around important issues affecting teachers – like performance management, continuous professional development, accountability, and ethics and discipline. SACE needs to be set up as an independent organisation – obviously with the input and involvement of the key stakeholders; government on one side as the employers and the teaching profession on the other – but there needs to be a more diverse representation in SACE; a clarification of its mandate.”

He feels that the institutional arrangement of SACE needs to be reconceptualised to produce a greater degree of independence, so that SACE is working in the best interests of all its teachers, whatever union they belong to, and even its non-unionised members. “Take SARS as an example,” he adds. “SARS is so successful today because the SARS Act created an institutional framework for SARS to operate under the auspices of government, yes, but also to have a measure of independence in employing people, for example – and holding them accountable for executing a specific mandate. SACE needs to be something quite similar; its independence and impartiality are important. But first there needs to be agreement of what SACE’s mandate should be, and what structures are put in place to ensure accountability, and how its performance is measured. This is a critical 1st step toward professionalization.”

“I feel that sometimes the relationship between government as employer and unions as employees gets confused – because you have instances of people in government, for example, who are also in the unions. The government as employer then expects the unions to discipline their members – which is not how it works in business. Here at the bank, if employees are not showing up to work or doing things that are against our internal regulations, I don’t say to the banking sector unions , ‘You must discipline your members’; I engage with the employee directly. Yes, that employee is entitled to have a union representative there to ensure they get fair treatment, but the roles are never confused.”

However, the unions response to the NECT gives him cause for positivity. “We do have all the teacher unions aligned with the NECT; they are all committed to the professionalisation of teaching. All of the unions already have their own professional development programmes, and when you get them around a table, they realise they don’t have as many major differences as they might have imagined. So the NECT has already been successful in facilitating that kind of dialogue, just talking with the unions about issues that affect them and defining what professionalisation means. We’ve agreed that we need a common set of standards; we need to develop teachers continuously; we need to develop and enforce a code of conduct, and agree on how we’re going to measure and assess teacher development; we need to set up disciplinary codes with appropriate structures to enforce them. I feel that SACE certification should be managed almost like they do in the medical profession – if you are found to be not living up to the code and fulfilling the requirements, you get stripped of your accreditation.”

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