Teacher jobs are under threat following attempts to iron out inequalities, reports Karen Mac Gregor. Teacher unions are squaring up for a battle with provincial education departments over the planned redeployment of thousands of teachers, with a danger of up to half of those caught in the upheaval losing their jobs.
New nationally-agreed pupil:teacher ratios of between 35:1 and 41:1 are threatening the jobs of many teachers at white, Asian and coloured schools where ratios have historically been lower. No national figures are available, but provinces which were well-funded by the previous government, such as Gauteng and the Western Cape, will be particularly badly affected.
Teachers in previously well-funded face transfer to disadvantaged African schools where pupil:teacher ratios are often much higher, or to provinces experiencing teacher shortages. The alternative is redundancy.
News reports last year estimated the redeployment of as many as 3,500 teachers in Gauteng, the industrial heartland, and 12,000 teachers in the Western Cape, which has a population of mostly whites and coloureds, and has been extremely well funded in the past. Both provinces have been struggling to balance their education books because of budget cuts and high teacher salary bills.
In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's most populous province and 85 per cent African, it is estimated that 2,974 teachers need to be redeployed from mostly former white and Asian schools to disadvantaged, mainly African schools. That will still leave a surplus of 2,59 teachers in the province.
However, the South African Democratic Teachers Union in Gauteng has threatened to fight the retrenchment of any teachers in the province and the union is resisting budget cuts nationally.
In the middle of 1995, teacher organisations and the government signed an agreement under which surplus teachers would be transferred to provinces or schools with teacher shortages, or would be retrenched made redundant. They also agreed to establish set pupil: teacher ratios.
Zukile Kosi, general secretary of SADTU Soweto branch, said: "Although we were part of the pupil:teacher ratio agreement with the government, we cannot accept that so many teachers will be laid off next year." He said the agreements were that set pupil:teacher ratios would be achieved over a longer period.
* Girls are outstripping boys in achievement, reversing the trend in most other African countries. However, serious gender bias remains in the South African education system.
There are more girls than boys in South African schools, universities and colleges, says Jane Hofmeyr, an education analyst for the National Business Initiative in Johannesburg. 200,000 more girls than boys go to schools, and more girls pass school-leaving examinations.
Dr Hofmeyr has been studying the gender balance since the 1970s. She found that in 1976 - the year of the Soweto uprising and beginning of mass resistance to apartheid - more boys were entering the education system and leaving with qualifications.
By 1982, although more boys were still entering the system, more girls were successfully completing their school careers and going on to higher education. In 1994, for the first time, female students outnumbered male students at undergraduate level.
She believes language policy has played a key role causing the gender shift. After 1976, English was introduced as the teaching medium in African schools from standard three (10 to 11-year-olds) and it appears that girls coped better with the language change.
Other possible contributing factors are the greater involvement of boys in political activism since the 1970s (which could have caused some to drop out of secondary school), the pressure on boys in rural areas to migrate in search of work, and the higher lobola (marriage price) paid for well-educated girls, which gives parents an incentive to keep their daughters in school.
Hofmeyr believes the trend of female dominance will continue. Drop-out rates among boys are still high although political activism is no longer the cause.
"High drop-out rates occur among boys at a very young age, so unless we discover why the holding power of school is low with boys, it is likely the trend will continue."
Indeed the dominance of girls is likely to become even more pronounced if progress is made along the road to equality between the sexes in South African schools. There is deep gender bias in teaching, in text books and in the extra-curricular options offered to girls and boys.
Men dominate the positions of authority in schools, although there are far more women teachers. Sexual harassment is prevalent in many secondary schools and colleges, and girls lack confidence.
Some of these problems should be addressed once the government's plans to set up a gender equality commission go ahead.