MASERU – The ministry of education and training has been at loggerheads with teachers over a chain of teachers’ grievances since last year that saw educators repeatedly threaten strike action.
This was because, as the teachers alleged, government had reneged on promises to attend to their promises. The dispute has spilt into the courts, and occasionally, on the streets of Maseru.
The Lesotho Association for Teacher (LAT) has been at the coalface of the intractable case. This week Public Eye reporter ’Mathatisi Sebusi speaks to LAT president Letsatsi Ntsibolane on the genesis of the dispute ahead of the planned rolling strike action schedule to start on February 18.
PE: You have announced rolling strike action starting on 16 February, can you tell us how the strike will work and why teachers are going on strike?
LN: We will be going on strike every three weeks of the month and attending classes for a week starting from February 18 for the whole year. During the three weeks we would be strike, we will be picketing every Wednesday at selected education offices.
We are going on strike because the ministry of education has failed to address our grievances despite the agreements we had with them. We did have agreements with the ministry about how and when the grievances would be addressed but, instead of them adhering to the agreements, they went behind our backs and filed a case against us challenging the decision by DDPR granting us a certificate to strike.
You have to understand that we had suspended that the same strike they challenged since we believed and trusted that they would be committed to the agreement and honour it, instead, they stabbed us in the back and filled a case against us.
During the conciliation process at DDPR we failed to reach an agreement concerning our complaints hence the strike action.
PE: The government has been saying it has no money since the beginning of the financial year. Don’t you think going on strike is opportunistic in these circumstances?
LN: It is the only action that will force the Government through its ministry of education to take teachers seriously and address their issues and honour the promises they made.
Our grievances are not just about money, there are those that just need commitment and if the ministry of education was willing to address them it would have done so a long time ago. Failure to have done so has showed us that they are not willing hence why we have to force them to attend to the grievances.
It has been said that the Government is broke, but to us it looks like the Government becomes broke only when it has to pay teachers but on matters that profit ministers it is not.
PE: What are your major grievances; and what efforts have been made to address them?
LN: We have about 10 complaints that the ministry of education promised to address; some do not need money to be addressed while others do. I will start with those that do not necessarily need money.
It was discovered in 2011 that the issue of performance contracts for principals which appears in the Education Act of 2010 stating that principals will be hired on performance contracts not exceeding five years has a problem hence the Government advised itself that the contract should be stopped.
Therefore we want the ministry to amend the Act because from 2012 going forward principals have not been hired but have been acting in more than 1 500 Lesotho schools without being paid acting allowances.
Our main worry is that when principals act, performance in schools deteriorates because they are unable to implement rules and regulations for the schools, especially on disciplinary matters because they are not considered principals but just acting and are not accorded much respect.
We signed an agreement with the ministry of education that the Education Act would be amended in November 2018 and principals would be engaged on permanent and pensionable terms by January 2019 but no action has been done to address the issue.
The way I understand it, amending the Act only needs the country’s commitment.
The Teaching Service Commission did not hire teachers that were recommended by school boards after interviews but chose their own for reasons known to them.
Schools and teachers’ associations fought this and it was agreed that such teachers would only be taken to schools that have a serious scarcity of teachers but that agreement was turned down and the deputy Prime Minister (Monyane Moleleki) said it will not happen as that would mean we are ordering them while they are the ones in power.
PE: I do understand that teachers also have problems with the way they are being paid their pensions and gratuities when they retire. Can you enlighten us on this?
LN: Currently, every Government official is given 25 percent as a lump sum when they retire and get the remaining 75 percent on monthly basis. Our wish is that we should at least be given a bigger portion as a lump sum when we retire and less on a monthly basis because statistics show that our life expectancy is very short hence some die before enjoying the money they worked hard for which does not serve its purpose. We requested that we be given 50 percent gratuity and 50 percent in monthly allowances.
This was agreed and the Ministry of Education was to consider our proposal but this has not happened until today. For this to have been happened, the ministry only needed commitment not money.
We also requested that statistics of unqualified teachers be collected after the education policy of 2009 that says everybody in the education system should have teaching qualifications.
PE: You also seem to be having challenges concerning the new integrated curriculum. What is wrong with it?
LN: The new integrated curriculum is very good and can produce innovators. It allows children to think on their own not be spoon fed. Under it teachers only facilitate but children find out things by themselves and solve problems for themselves. However, the country was not prepared for it.
The teachers have not been given any training or afforded resources to enable them to teach. It was agreed that since the Government cries broke, schools to be used as resource centres be chosen but that has not been done.
We even asked for equitable distribution of teachers to tackle the problem of the high pupil-teacher ratio in a number of schools.
This only needs will and determination, not money.
We understand that the new curriculum needs money but it is not for our own pockets but we want the curriculum to be effective.
There is a roll out at the moment of grade eight students, those children are not being taught the new curriculum and schools do not have syllabuses. They are being taught the old curriculum but the Government has pronounced that there is a roll out.
Grade seven students do not have books and those that are in grade 10 now piloting the curriculum have been without books since they started the curriculum.
The only grievance that has been addressed well is the issue of payslips so far.
PE: You want your career and salary structure reviewed. What is wrong with the current system?
LN: It came to the two parties’ attention that the current structure has problems. Giving an example, acting principals in primary schools who are holding a degree are not being paid the acting allowance whereas apart from performing the principal’s responsibilities they also teach yet there is no difference in salaries between the teacher holding a degree and a principal holding the same qualifications but with different responsibilities.
The ministry failed to even attend to this matter even after we offered to cater for our own delegates if money is the problem.
We were later told that specialists from Uganda will be helping address our issues. Imagine being given such person from a country with the kind of education system they have. It is only natural that they tell us that we are at least lucky that we are being paid in our country when compared to them.
The ministry of education has diverted this to the ministry of public service going against the agreement we had that the structure would be reviewed and led by the public service with inclusive representation which is supposed to be put to work in the next financial year.
PE: Have there been any payments made towards teachers’ as a way of addressing your grievances so far?
LN: We were told that principals were not going to get their gratuities but the cabinet gave out M23 million in September last year so that the gratuities be paid and its was agreed that the payments would be made by October 2018 but not even a single principal has been paid.
There are also those that have not even signed contracts while other principals’ contracts have disappeared.
We even met with the deputy prime minister for a week about this issue and he promised he has facilitated that on January 6 2019 all principals that have not signed contracts should have signed by then. The ministry of education announced it but we refused to be part of that agreement because it had nothing tangible for us.
Again Treasury gave the ministry of education M35 million in September last year yet teachers have still not been paid. We were shown the letter from Treasury and are sure that the ministry of education got the money but is keeping it.
PE: The ministry of education says it has paid M38 million towards resolving teachers’ salary errors, what do you have to say about that?
LN: It is a lie. When we started the negotiations, Education PS Thabang Lebese told us that the money that the ministry had at that time was M4 million, and the total of teachers’ errors was around M53 million which included substitutes, hardship allowance, acting allowance, first time appointments and promotions.
We agreed that the M4 million be given to substitute teachers and for hardship allowances.
In the next meeting Lebese told us that they had M12 million and we agreed that first appointment errors be paid but then later, in a meeting that was facilitated by the deputy prime minister, the ministry of education denied that it has M12 million.
On November 7, the ministry of education announced that it has paid some principals but later we discovered that out of M12 million less that M2 million was paid out hence why we re-instated the strike.
PE: Teachers seem to be going on strike as a last resort despite mooting that this was imminent, were there any challenges stopping you or you still hoped the grievances would be addressed?
LN: We have been waiting for the certificate (to strike) because we do not want to go on an unlawful strike. The ministry of education have been and is trying all in its power to delay our process, but also intervention and pleas from parents and other stakeholders asking us not to go on strike for the sake of children delayed us.
However, now that the date is finalised, there is no turning back unless the Government is willing to negotiate with us.
PE: What will happen to students during the strike and will teachers work hard during the week they are on duty to cover up for lost time?
LN: I cannot promise that teachers will work hard to recover lost time as it is their choice whether they go to school to drag their feet or work. The Government is the one that will decide what will happen with children during our absence.
PE: How is the strike going to affect children’s education and performance, especially grade 10s and 12s?
LN: My guess is as good as yours, but it is up to the Government to address teachers’ grievances on time to avoid wasting students’ time.
PE: How do you think the strike will impact future teachers?
LN: It will improve education standards and teaching practice in Lesotho and bring decent working conditions.
PE: What do you think informed your dismissal and the timing?
LN: The employer wanted to instil fear in teachers; unfortunately he was not advised accordingly because that escalated the aggression of teachers. The action ignited in teachers the passion to join the strike.
It is unfortunate that people entrusted with powers to ensure that demands of workers are attended to and we have quality education seem not to do what is expected.
What is more disappointing is that the ministry is headed by a professor; one would think he would weigh the timing. I do not mind, I can be dismissed but the timing was not proper. I think they could have waited at least but I think they were obsessed with instilling fear without looking at other factors.