I was reminded of this story recently, when I supported Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s critique of the “norms and standards” campaign for school infrastructure, based on a 2008 draft published by her predecessor, Naledi Pandor. While I strongly support the drive for decent school infrastructure, this campaign, in my view, is misdirected in substance, style and strategy.
Instead of engaging my arguments, commentators and activists concocted a range of conspiracy theories and concluded that my “primary agenda is not education but driving a wedge between the ANC and the trade unions”.
This is a well-known tactic that involves igniting suspicion about a person’s motives, so that no-one takes their arguments seriously. It is an approach that has seriously damaged education for nearly 20 years.
Many of us recall how critics of the ill-fated “Curriculum 2005” were falsely accused of defending the old “apartheid curriculum”. And those who challenged the “voluntary severance package and redeployment scheme” were decried as “racists” resisting “transformation”. Predictably these policies (that were promoted in tones of moralistic self-righteousness) were a disaster for disadvantaged schools. Today no-one will admit having supported a “new curriculum” that almost destroyed the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy; or a “right-sizing” policy that offered experienced teachers tempting incentives to exit the teaching profession.
The “norms and standards” approach to school infrastructure is beguiling because everyone agrees that the infrastructure crisis must be addressed.
However, I agree with Angie Motshekga that her predecessor’s “norms and standards” approach runs the risk of pouring billions of Rands into interventions that will not necessarily advance South Africa’s top policy priority: improving education outcomes. In fact, there is a risk of diverting resources away from strategies designed to achieve such outcomes.
This hit me forcibly some time ago when I read an article in East London’s Daily Dispatch about Sakuphumelela Senior Secondary School, considered to be “one of the best equipped” in the Eastern Cape. After pupil numbers had dwindled for years, the school was finally closed when only ten pupils turned up.
Apart from classrooms, Sakuphumelela had an administration block with 9 offices, a science lab, a library, flush toilets, water and electricity, furniture, including desks and chairs, computers and text books, many of which were still scattered around long after the school’s closure. Community activist Victor Moyeni was quoted as saying pupil numbers started dropping when parents complained about the quality of teaching. The parents wanted the teachers replaced. “District officials who were sent here did nothing to resolve the problems” Mr Moyeni said.
So parents chose to pay up to R400 per month to transport their children, often to less well-equipped schools, for better education. Those who cannot afford the transport costs, walk up to 10 kilometres to school and back each day.
Pupil migration in search of better education is a common phenomenon. And it would be wrong to reduce this to a search for better infrastructure. World-wide, good teaching has a far greater impact on education outcomes than any other variable. While a minimum infrastructure platform is needed to achieve quality education, it makes more sense to establish “guidelines” than impose rigid “norms and standards”. This is what Minister Motshekga’s is trying to do, in an attempt to align infrastructure improvement with the primary goal of achieving better education outcomes.
She has, sensibly, acknowledged that “state-of-the-art” infrastructure norms and standards, (which would be “stretch targets” in most first world countries), are unachievable, unaffordable and educationally misdirected in our context.
They would result in almost all schools (including good ones) being classified as part of the infrastructure “backlog”. Attempts to “catch up” would require the misdirection of billions of Rands to fix things that aren’t broken. In the Western Cape alone, this would require between R8-billion to R10-billion according to the national Treasury’s costing. We would set ourselves up for inevitable failure, diverting resources away from far more effective education interventions required to improve literacy and numeracy. Instead of learning from past failures we would go headlong into another dead end.
Let me illustrate this by using examples drawn from the 2008 “norms and standards”. While South Africa battles to meet the challenge of introducing Grade R in every primary school, the “norms and standards” require that each Grade R child, in a capacity class of 30, must have 2.6-meters of “sitting space”. There are comparable requirements in every other grade.
Achieving this would require the extension or re-building of perfectly functional classrooms. The South African Schools Act stipulates that “a governing body must, within a period of 12 months” ensure that the school’s policies comply with the norms and standards set by the Minister. This will inevitably result in misdirected expenditure.
The point can be further illustrated by the “lighting” norms and standards.
The 2008 document stipulates that
“Lighting norms will be as follows:
Artificial illumination (the amount of light falling on a surface) should be:
For classrooms, libraries and offices — 200 lux
For art rooms and other specialised areas — 300 lux.
The lighting level above any given surface must be controllable (ie from 200 to 700 lux)
The area within which a given level cannot be varied (the light-zone) shall not be larger than 50 sq meters.
Individual light sources capable of providing 150 to 500 lux must be available for specific activities (power outlets should be available at least every 10 square meters).
Then there is a section on Acoustics which ends with the instruction: “Classroom must not be located next to sports field.” (sic)
It is not hard to envisage an army of inspectors running around checking school infrastructure against these standards, while some unions continue to prevent the re-introduction of educational inspectors in classrooms. This contradiction neatly summarises our inverted education priorities.
It therefore made sense for Angie Motshekga to change tack.
The South African Schools Act does not oblige her to impose norms and standards for infrastructure. It says that she “may” do so, not that she “must”. But once she embarks down this road, there is no room for latitude. Then the Act prescribes that norms and standards must cover almost everything from classroom size to extra-curricular choices.
We should have learnt by now that the search for perfection is unachievable and therefore bad policy.
In contrast, Angie’s draft guidelines seek to address inadequate infrastructure by enabling innovation and partnership.
We could, for example, pilot the process by earmarking the poorest schools in an education District for upgrading. District education officials would convene meetings with the governing bodies and student leadership at each school to establish the infrastructural priorities required to improve the teaching and learning environment. Functioning toilets, electricity (or alternative power generation), sufficient classrooms with sound structures and solid roofing would be included in the basic minimum required by the guidelines.
Based on this, the school team would formulate an infrastructural improvement plan with timelines and budgets appropriate to each school, and aligned to the education improvement plans (that already exist in Western Cape schools).
In this way, all the school’s stakeholders would be able to forge a partnership to develop infrastructure, in a shared quest to improve all elements of functional schooling, ranging from the school grounds, to teacher and pupil punctuality. Our current experience shows that once school communities become part of their own development, they achieve much more, including a reduction in the devastating levels of vandalism that destroys millions of Rands of infrastructure every year.
This is the affordable, achievable and sensible way to go.
The one thing I just cannot understand is why Angie Motshekga allowed herself to be frog-marched into signing a commitment to publish infrastructure “norms and standards” by mid-2013. She even agreed to this becoming an order of court.
I presume that she and her advisers were worried about being painted as opponents of infrastructure improvement. But, in reality, she only succeeded in painting herself into a corner.
South African politics can be a rough space, especially when insults fly and the “labels” stick. The remedy is to swallow a spoonful of cement, reinforce your backbone, and stand up for policies that turn out to be right in the long run.
That is why I am backing Angie Motshekga in this debate. It is as simple as that.