Africa News Service, June 29, 1999

Will the reintroduction of corporal punishment restore a sense of pride and achievement among students?

Johannesburg (Business Day, June 29, 1999) - Take a walk through Johannesburg or any urban area in SA and you will find school pupils in uniforms, sauntering around, when they should be in school.

Some education officials attribute truancy to a lack of discipline, which they argue is a consequence of past disruptions in the education system caused by political uprisings.

Others say pupils are bored and some blame parents for not sending their children to school.

Yet another group says the education department has spent millions on the culture of learning and teaching service, which amounts to addressing rallies and having television programmes to get pupils to attend school.

Schooling is compulsory for pupils from the ages of seven to 15 and these truants are breaking the law. Everybody blames everybody else, but no one is offering good solutions. We have become a nation which allows children to be raised without respect for the law.

New Education Minister Kader Asmal could either allow this moral decay to intensify, or he could take drastic measures.

A harsh and extreme possibility is the reintroduction of corporal punishment at schools. It could help restore a sense of pride and achievement among pupils. Punishment could take the form of regulated caning to be conducted only by a school principal, or by assigning punitive manual labour at schools.

The point is that pupils need to feel embarrassed when they have erred, and there is clearly no mechanism in place to instil this feeling. Corporal punishment worked in the past and children often grew up with a fear of failure and the knowledge that education was a key for social mobility.

However, SA's education system is based on liberal values and the reintroduction of corporal punishment is, for its supporters, a pipe dream.

The ministry could, alternatively, reconsider the procedures around expelling pupils.

Currently school-governing bodies have the power to suspend pupils, but it is difficult to convert this into expulsions. Pupils who are suspended often get off on technicalities, either because their governing bodies failed to comply with disciplinary process regulations, or provincial education officials intervene. The message is that it is fine to steal or commit other offences - the education department will always protect you.

Asmal is known for his ability to get things done, and it will be interesting to observe how he tackles getting lazy teachers to earn their salaries.

The introduction last year of the Employment of Educators' Act, which sets out job descriptions for teachers, is a victory for the department.

This legislation is coupled with the establishment of the SA Council of Educators, which requires teachers to register with them and follow a code of conduct.

Asmal needs to ensure that teachers teach and that officials keep a check on the system, so the dead wood that is throwing this noble profession into disrepute, is removed.

From research commissioned by the department, it was discovered that, on average at some schools, teaching took place on only 21 of the annual 191 school days.

Teachers spent the remaining time attending union meetings, on strike, attending funerals, taking time off for pay day, and wasting time due to slow registration and exam preparation.

These disturbing figures speak for themselves and the department has no choice but to tackle these teachers. However, teachers also need to be trained continually so a sense of pride is restored in their jobs.

The redeployment of teachers to schools where there are shortages, has dragged on for more than three years, making a mockery of the system. The department must now take tough decisions like being firm with provinces to complete the process.

The department could offer voluntary severance packages to teachers who do not want to move and are stalling the process. Vacant posts could be filled by newly qualified graduate teachers, thereby ending the instability in education.

The department has, meanwhile, been accused of rushing the introduction of the new curriculum 2005, which analysts say is "too first world" for the system and that teachers are inadequately trained.

The curriculum is being implemented at grades one and two this year, with plans to introduce it at grades three and seven next year. It makes sense for the education department to re-evaluate the implementation of curriculum 2005 so that problems can be ironed out.

This process should not be rushed just because the department wants to meet targets.

While former education minister Sibusiso Bengu appeared to have played a distant role in the provinces, Asmal would need almost to impose himself on provinces which appear to be slack in transformation.

It is known, for example, that KwaZulu-Natal's education MEC Eileen kaNkosi Shandu has not attended meetings of the council of education ministers and this province therefore does not have a strong voice in these meetings.

Asmal needs to ensure such provinces stop their political games, and instead direct their attention to the serious business of educating pupils.

However, he needs to ensure there are continual, intense training programmes for managers at all levels in the provinces.

The education department has over the past five years introduced brilliant policies aimed at redress. While these policies have the potential to bring SA's education system on a par with first-world countries, these policies will be meaningless if pupils and teachers are not in the classroom. Getting them back there must be Asmal's first priority.

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