Columnist Neva Makgetla, a former deputy director-general in charge of government-labour wage negotiations, is of the view that attaining quality schooling requires “a big redistribution of resources from rich to poor schools” (“Innovations in work needed to beat unequal education”, June 28).

She offers a diagnosis of the underlying issue — teacher shortages, poor infrastructure and lack of equipment. Problem is, the identical diagnosis was made in 1994. It is as if nothing has changed since then.

But this is to avoid the obvious: the position of teachers has undergone the most dramatic change imaginable. Teachers, once derided as “cheaters” by angry township youth, have used their bargaining power to join the aristocracy of labour.

Evidence for this is that 95% are deemed to be fully qualified and earn salaries that place them among the highest paid teachers in the world. Head teachers’ annual packages are well north of R1m. The consequence is that little cash remains for school improvement. Pit latrines should have been abolished by 2000, yet they remain in use. Bureaucratic capture has done its job to perfection.

Given the concerns about the quality of learning I’m reminded of the Soviet workers’ chant, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”. In our case the chant seems to be “they overpay us, and we can get more”. Makgetla’s promised “innovations in work” are a dead-end unless this reality is taken on board. Fact is, the public service is bloated and overpaid.  

Innovation, as in creating a functional education system, calls for self-interest to be put on hold. So here’s an innovation, brothers and sisters. In comradely spirit commit to salary increases on an adjusted CPI scale — from zero at the top to full consumer price index for those at the bottom. This will stabilise the salary bill, release cash for more posts and school improvement, and begin to reduce salary inequality.

That is social innovation at its best.

Michael Kahn, Cape Town

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