A CRACK squad of 200 senior officials and educationists is being set up by the government to clamp down on indiscipline and abysmal teaching.
Members of the "guerrilla" squad will conduct spot checks on dysfunctional schools across the country. They have already paid unannounced visits to 1,036 very bad schools, defined as those where 80 per cent or more pupils failed final exams last year.
Education minister Kader Asmal said the unit will form part of a provincially-based "supervisory" service, which will have the right to visit any school.
"No-go areas must be a thing of the past," he said, referring to cases in which union members have kept officials out of schools. "Such people are out of line and should expect to be disciplined."
The threat of checks and disciplinary action against teachers will be complemented by supervision, advice and support.
Mr Asmal, an energetic former law professor who became education minister last June, began to move against ill-disciplined schools in January following yet another year of dismal results in the state sector's school-leaving examinations, which more than half of final-year pupils failed.
Mr Asmal and provincial education ministers have also agreed that guidelines on recors to be kept by schools will be ready next month and that quarterly reports on school attendance must be produced every three months. They are developing school evaluation and monitoring processes.
The education department is also trying to improve conditions of service for teachers, enhancing school and financial management, increasing opportunities for professional development, and training 27,000 headteachers in principles of education, law, policy and conflict management.
Some of South Africa's nine provinces are already using the supervisory squad.
Gauteng, the richest province, has created "education action zones" for focused intervention, and has begun closing down fly-by-night schools that have been ripping off township pupils.
And in KwaZulu-Natal province, hardline education minister Eileen kaNkosi Shandu has closed final-year classes at 28 schools that achieved less than 5 per cent pass rates, sending pupils to nearby institutions and ordering the schools to start an hour earlier to improve their results.
Many formerly African schools are notoriously slack, partly a legacy of an apartheid system that neglected them. Schools start late and offer poorly-prepared lessons sporadically. Bad behaviour and violence is common.