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Govt mulls mega teacher biometrics roll-out

Technology would track teachers clocking in, stem absenteeism.

The system of teachers signing in when they arrive at school is outdated and open to abuse, and needs to be replaced with technology, says the basic education department.

The Department of Basic Education is turning to technology in a bid to solve the challenge of teacher absenteeism, in a mammoth project that will see 24 000 schools equipped with biometric clocking devices.

The project, believed to be the biggest of its kind within government, is set to be implemented in 2015, and should provide the department with real-time statistics relating to a lack of teachers in classrooms.

However, biometric clock-in systems are susceptible to vandalism, and the range and diversity of schools in SA will make implementation challenging.

Playing catch up

Department of Basic Education spokesman Panyaza Lesufi says it is planning a biometric clock-in system for teachers at all of its 24 000 schools, but the project is in its infancy stage. He comments that the current system of signing in and out is from the “stone age”.

Lesufi says the conceptual plan is for the system to be implemented in 2015, but it could be done next year if all parties are in agreement and the funds are available. “In every class, there must be a teacher in front of the class.”

The current system is problematic, as some teachers sign in on behalf of others, while some educators forget to sign in at all, he says. If teachers are not at work for three days, the department can act faster and deduct money from salaries quicker than is currently the case, where the process takes as long as two months, notes Lesufi. He adds that over-performers can also be rewarded.

The biometric clock-in system will link up with the department’s Persal human resources management tool. However, Lesufi points out that the department needs to consult with teachers over the project, and a pilot project will only be launched after consultations end.

Lesufi adds that the department has not yet issued tenders or finalised numbers, so the total budget could be more or less than the R480 million cited by several media reports. The department is about to consult with teachers and hopes to persuade them of the merits of the system.

A biometric system will aid the department in filling vacancies as this process will become automated, says Lesufi. He adds that it will also notify the department of teacher migrations to other schools and will aid it in planning its budget.

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2012 budget indicated that spending on education will grow from R207 billion in 2012/13 to R236 billion in 2014/15.

Key area

SA declared education as an apex priority in 2009. During his State of the Nation Address yesterday evening, president Jacob Zuma said: “We want to see everyone in the country realising that education is an essential service for our nation.”

Zuma explained that this “means we want the education sector and society as a whole to take education more seriously than is happening currently. All successful societies have one thing in common – they invested in education.

“In elevating education to its rightful place, we want to see an improvement in the quality of learning and teaching, and the management of schools. We want to see an improvement in attitudes, posture and outcomes. Working with educators, parents, the community and various stakeholders, we will be able to turn our schools into centres of excellence,” said Zuma.

Implementation challenges

ERS Biometrics sales manager Delmé Hawkins says the driver behind the project is that children are not being taught. He says some schools lack infrastructure and few have the perfect scenario of electricity and an IT network for the implementation of a biometric system.

While this will add complications to the project, there are technological solutions, such as solar power, backups in the event of a blackout, and SIM-card-enabled systems that do not require a network, explains Hawkins.

Although issues such as power and a network connection can be overcome, the units are susceptible to vandalism. Hawkins says this has not been a big problem in the industry, and a greater challenge is that the devices are unplugged so that something else such as a radio can be used. “It is a risk.”

Hawkins does not think a biometrics project of this scale has been implemented within government previously. He adds that it will need buy-in from school management to succeed; otherwise resistance will slow down the process.

Mark Walker, director of insights and verticals for the IDC’s Africa and Turkey region, says implementing units at 24 000 schools is an “ambitious goal”. He says there are practical concerns, such as budget availability, issuing of tenders and how to prioritise schools so as to schedule the rollout.

Walker says there are massive variations among teachers across SA and while some go “over and beyond” in their tasks, others fail to arrive at work. “The bad apple spoils the box.”

Although the technological solution does exist to ensure teachers can be managed in terms of human resources, Walker questions whether this is the best way of spending a limited budget. He says the state will be rolling out a massively expensive technological solution to a disciplinary problem that has no guarantee of being effective as it can be tampered with. “Are we using a sledge hammer?”

The value proposition of the system needs to be considered and weighed up against whether it would be better to put electronic textbooks in the hands of children so that they are in control of learning, adds Walker.

South African Democratic Teachers’ Union media officer Nomusa Cembi says the department has not yet discussed the plan with the union, but it views the system as a management tool. However, it sounds like the system is being introduced as a way of punishing those teachers who are late, she adds.

This article was first published on ITWeb.

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