This letter was in response to an opinion piece by Jonny Steinberg

Jonny Steinberg’s column on education glosses over the CDE’s report on fixing SA schools.

In his generally thoughtful piece on the Centre for Development & Enterprise’s (CDE) series of five policy research reports on how to fix SA’s schools, Jonny Steinberg says how you frame a problem determines how you solve it. (“Bad education follows on the township exit of the middle classes”, April 21). We agree.

In Steinberg’s view, the CDE incorrectly frames the reason for the poor performance of SA’s schools. He says: “The root cause of the problem isn’t the dominance of Sadtu [SA Democratic Teachers Union]. The union’s dominance is a symptom of the exit of other powerful voices”, that is “middle-class parents” who have found better public schools in the suburbs. As a result, he says, following famous economist Albert Hirschman, “the most powerful voice remaining is that of the incompetent and the lazy”.

The centre certainly does not think the vast majority of parents in about 80% of our public schools are incompetent or lazy. However, we do recognise the reality of middle-class flight, which Steinberg would have seen had he read our reports more carefully. We state explicitly: “There is evidence that many poor black parents exercise the ‘exit’ option by sending their children to a school outside their immediate locale… and, to historically white or Indian schools, as they perceive these to be stepping-stones on an upward social mobility trajectory.”

The CDE has important recommendations on how to strengthen parents who face powerful unions with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. For example:

* Empowering parents to hold principals, teachers and unions to account when they do not perform. We recommend bringing back the annual national assessments and publicising results on a regular basis school by school;

* Making individual school report cards available to local communities (say on a billboard outside each school) as an effective way of informing parents and improving school accountability; and

* Reducing Sadtu’s dominance and ability to block these and other accountability measures. That is why we call for the implementation of the ministerial task team’s recommendations to curtail Sadtu’s power, such as ending cadre deployment in education and creating clear lines of differentiation between union members and education officials.

The root of Sadtu’s dominance is twofold: mainly disempowered parent bodies and a union that has the political power to act with impunity. Both of these variables need to be looked at if we are to fundamentally improve the quality of schooling in our poorest schools.

This article published by the Business Live is based on a new CDE report titled: “THE SILENT CRISIS: Time to fix South Africa’s Schools.