The COVID-19 pandemic has hit basic education in an unprecedented scale. It may result in the redefinition of teaching as we knew it before the pandemic. It has disrupted the idea of teaching in respect of methods, way of doing things, culture and established social hierarchies in the education system.
Basic education provides the highest concentration point for the ‘manufacturing’ of societal values outside what happens in individual households. Not only will schools be faced with the vexing challenges of resuming effective learning and teaching, but learners and teachers will feel the impact of an interrupted calendar year.
Teachers provide the largest conduit for a national curriculum to achieve its development objects. The crafting of a curriculum statement is supposed to be a synoptic capitulation of national aspirations that must be deposited into future generations. Schools as units charged with this task operate in a context that has myriad determinants, some are not in the control of those charged with school management. Some of the determinants include society’s income and social status; social support networks; societal education and literacy; employment/working conditions; social environments; physical environments; learner individual characteristics and coping skills; and early childhood development
The extent to which other agencies of the state will be fast in resuming their normal service delivery systems due to the COVID-19 interruptions, will be the single most macro-determinant of how recovery of the education sector will unfold. The demands of social distancing will put strain on learning and teaching resources that are otherwise challenged. The onboarding of stringent public health management interventions in schools will create an additional strain on the psychosocial challenges that teachers had been dealing with pre-COVID19. The poverty safety nets of the education system such as feeding schemes and the social grant system will be challenged by structural adjustment demands of lending institutions such as the IMF.
The global schooling system has been hard at work to find alternative solutions to go through COVID-19 thus triggering a transition to post-COVID-19 new ways of schooling. The most common of these solutions is the acceleration of online teaching and deployment of curricular though webinar platforms. Teachers, especially in the private schooling spaces, have been teaching during lockdowns; of course, advantaged by the availability of an otherwise expensive and continuously buffering data system.
Some schools have even ventured to reduce the non-fundamentals of the curriculum demands of the schooling system. They have accelerated their on-tablet teaching platforms. Private schools are even collaborating with teachers that are best in specific modules of the subject area, thus creating a widened pool of teacher resources. To meet the teaching needs of the country, the schooling system has already started rationalising on the main deployer of content through mega-teaching systems with a wider reach, and local teachers being reduced to on-site consultants.
As the COVID-19 crisis proceeds, the competition for teachers, teaching platforms and learners has grown to a level where the local teacher may be undermined by online content deployment that may be sponsored through marketing. The bargaining power of the physical school and teacher has now shifted from the local school to the virtual teaching platforms. Collaborators with international examination centres have also begun to flood the local teaching market thus creating possibilities of review of the teacher resourcing thesis of many countries.
How Does SADTU Manage This Disruption and Restore Its Leadership?
Traditionally, the union movement would view these as a threat to teaching posts and therefore jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has shoved technology into the fabric of society without any negotiation, changing the balance of forces in favour of the consumer of the education service rather than the supplier. As the entire value chain of the education offering is turned upside down, so will the bargaining power of labour be concomitantly affected.
The mass transition of learners to new teaching platforms will not be done overnight, and in many cases may be choked by socio-economic issues related with the basics of online access resources such as data and energy. SADTU needs to negotiate a path of relevance in the new context. The predictability of less disruptions related to traditional labour relations dispute resolutions mechanisms such as strikes, will migrate most learners to new learning platforms as content security havens, and the school will be relegated to a socialization theatre. The perceived quality, cost, delivery capacity, and ability to provide uninterrupted continuity of learning, as well as long-term resilience of the new ways of teaching will require ‘cyber-labour relations regimes,’ ‘cyber-space bargaining mechanisms,’ and ‘cyber-regulatory mechanisms or governance.’
The pandemic should be a warning to SADTU that there is a need to accelerate the upskilling of its members to be cyber-world relevant with a local school flair. The reality of both surveillance capitalism and government as a human future and the new frontier of power must recalibrate our generic behaviour on membership data and surveillance thereof. As the personalization of the teacher as an individual already in surveillance concretizes, SADTU must calibrate a strategic path that catapults it into a future where the collective bargaining rights of its members follows them into the cyberspace.
The post-COVID-19 reality must push SADTU to review its 2030 vision along emerging technology lines. SADTU members must be retooled into a community that learns, unlearns and relearns for survival in the next phase of human development acceleration, where the convergence of information technology, biotechnology and engineering will define the relevance of a teacher. It is resilience, responsiveness and reconfigurability that will define South Africa in or out of a post-COVID-19 World Order.
The looming shift of power to the non-physical school premises needs onboarding of members into the new trajectory. SADTU must remain vigilant lest DBE further expands its role in educational governance and institutional design at a time when SADTU is not displaying thought leadership and technically stepping back.
Many forms of cooperation and institutional development have grown out of moments of great tension and duress between SADTU and education authorities as employer, and the governing party as an alliance partner through COSATU. SADTU should participate in building a bright future for its members out of the COVID-19 induced innovations. For decades, SADTU has maintained bargaining power, credibility, and influence over the sector not only by virtue of its size and organizing capabilities but also by attracting other progressive stakeholders in education to its vision for the right of South African to learn in a context that has assured its teachers employee rights.
A SADTU that is truculent and self-justifying about its weaknesses right now is not a SADTU that will receive admiration among allies. A SADTU; that learns from the experiences of global counterparts, the private education domain, and other stakeholders education management; that embraces practical and meaningful cooperation with government and the education establishment; and that engages with international bodies and best practice, to help in the post-COVID19 reconstruction, is a SADTU that can use the pandemic-induced innovation trajectories as an opportunity to remind the South Africa of what co-operative union-government leadership is.
By FM Lucky Mathebula