The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training posits that education should be directed to the full development of the human personality and dignity – and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. This finds resonance locally, as the right to education is enshrined [or protected] in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, lending credence to the notion that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Education further acts as a means through which both adults and children can be lifted out of poverty, and provides the means to participate fully in their communities.

Nonetheless, the well-documented problems plaguing the education sector suggest that the teaching profession may be falling short of these ideals. Such problems range from the nation’s high drop-out rate, to South Africa’s poor performance in regional placement assessments in subjects such as mathematics and science. Most recently, teachers’ unions and the Department of Basic Education were in conflict over the annual national assessments. These assessments are intended to measure the literacy and numeracy skills of learners in Grades 1 to 9. This is to diagnose areas of weakness in order to afford both the Department of Basic Education and teachers opportunities to create appropriate remedies to the education malaise. Teachers’ unions argued that the assessments were not achieving their intended purpose and so refused to participate the tests this year. News reports however indicate that the unions have relented, and the assessments will be conducted early in 2016.

Perhaps it is time that the state placed greater emphasis on realising the right to education. Since the Constitution at Section 29 provides for the right of every child to basic education – this read with section 28(2), which states that a child’s best interests are paramount – it is perhaps only logical that these provisions should be granted meaning. While the Constitutional Court has yet to make pronouncements on what the right entails, the Department of Basic Education has published legally binding Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. As such, every school is legally bound to have water, electricity, internet, working toilets, safe classrooms with a maximum of 40 learners, security, and thereafter, libraries, laboratories and sports facilities. There is no obligation as yet, however, to ensure that teachers receive quality training and are further supported as they assist in discharging this right. However, without adequate resources, support and training, teachers may not be able to fulfil their vital role in assisting young South Africans realise their right to basic education.

It has been proven that teachers’ professional knowledge and skills play a vital role in the provision of quality education. Numerous studies point to a positive link between a quality education (provided by well-trained, valued, supported and motivated teachers) on the one hand, and lasting peace and sustainable development on the other hand. 

It must be noted that teachers have the right to form and join trade unions and to participate in the activities of such unions. However, this right must be balanced with their obligation to realise the right of learners to education. Moreover, the state must provide an environment and the necessary resources – including properly trained and managed teachers – conducive to the realisation of the latter right to education. When both teachers and the state, whether collectively or individually, fail to keep their end of the constitutional bargain, the only losers are the learners – and by implication, the future of South Africa.

So, this World Teachers’ Day, it is worth remembering that the education of future generations hangs in the balance – unless the best possible teachers are actually in every classroom teaching according to a standard that befits a future as envisaged by the Constitution.

By Phephelaphi Dube, Legal Officer: Centre for Constitutional Rights