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What to read into the ANC's promises on education

Victoria John

The ANC election manifesto has big, ambitious ideas for education, but can the party deliver on them?

The ANC clearly wishes to improve education, but observers question whether the government has the expertise and capacity to live up to its pledges.  (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The ANC is committed to "eradicating illiteracy, improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools, and building capacity in higher education and training", President Jacob Zuma said earlier this month when he launched the ANC's 2014 election manifesto.

Under five headings reflecting the party's broad education commitments, the manifesto makes 28 education promises. Of these, the Mail & Guardian selected six that span the spectrum from preschooling to universities, and asked specialists in each area whether the promises were (a) good ideas and (b) feasible.

1. Partnerships with the private-sector and state initiatives will provide accommodation for an additional 50 000 students.

Is it a good idea? Iain L'Ange, executive director of infrastructure, operations and finance at Rhodes University, says: "This is definitely a good idea. The report of the 2011 ministerial committee on student housing at universities [on which he was lead researcher] clearly identified a backlog of 196 000 residence beds. Strategies and mechanisms urgently need to be developed to increase access to safe, secure and well-managed university residences for poor working-class and rural students."

Is it feasible? L'Ange says: "A rough estimate of the cost of providing the 50 000 beds is R15-billion [more than half this year's higher education budget]. There is no indication of the period over which these additional places will be developed but the target is certainly feasible over a period of, say, five to eight years. Given the backlogs identified, this is a modest target. [But] refurbishing existing university academic and residence infrastructure, which is also a pressing issue, has not been addressed."

2. Twelve new campuses for further education and training (FET) colleges will be completed in 2014. (There are currently 50 public FET colleges.)

Is it a good idea? Joy Papier, director of the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, says: "Considering the number of school-leavers every year, it is understandable that we need to be providing more learning spaces outside universities so, in principle, building new college campuses is a good idea. If they are intended for places where students are currently not able to access college education, then that is even better. But we also need to ensure that we are optimally utilising existing colleges. There are campuses that desperately need infrastructure upgrading, particularly with regard to accommodation."

Is it feasible? Papier says: "The time frames are unrealistic, unless the building work is already under way or it's a renovation of an existing campus."

3. Building 1 000 new schools to expand access to education and respond to rural schooling and urban population growth.

Is it a good idea? Yoliswa Dwane, head of policy, communications and research at nongovernmental organisation Equal Education, says: "Of course, building 1 000 schools is a good idea. The real question is whether or not this promise will be kept by the ANC."

Is it feasible? Dwane says: Government's accelerated school infrastructure delivery initiative was supposed to have eradicated 495 mud schools within three years, but hasn't. We know government set a target of replacing 49 inappropriate schools, including mud schools, between the beginning of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 but it delivered only 40. We also know there is huge underspending of the backlogs grant that is meant to build new schools.  

"Although we need more schools built, we have to tackle the most troubling issue: the lack of capacity within our government to do this. Unless the department gets this right, we are not going to meet our targets – whether it's 50 schools, 100 schools or 1 000 schools."

4. Teacher development will receive ongoing attention. Teacher colleges linked to universities will be reopened and in-service teacher training intensified. Appropriate working conditions for public servants will be investigated – teachers in particular.

Is it a good idea? Hamsa Venkat, professor of numeracy at the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education, says: "The focus on teacher development is welcome and necessary. Reopening teacher colleges may help to broaden access to development opportunities, but it remains unclear what the content or the quality of the programmes will be. The same can be said about the commitment to 'intensify' teacher training."

Is it feasible? Venkat says: "We need to build more broadly shared understandings of what the priorities for teacher development in different subject areas at different levels are, and then discuss ways of focusing on these through infrastructure and content. Key to [improving working conditions for teachers] is looking at enhancing practices that are central to learning."

5. About one million poor families will benefit from an early learning stimulation programme through community-based initiatives and home visits, to prepare children before formal schooling.

Is it a good idea? Lebusa Monyooe, director of grant management systems and administration at the National Research Foundation, says: "This is an ambitious undertaking, possibly aimed at rekindling grassroots affinity to the party by amplifying an idealistic perspective about educational provisioning, given the historical lapses in the implementation of policies.

"It is universally accepted that education has the potential to transform communities and their livelihoods, but the devil is in the detail [of this promise]. The manifesto is deftly crafted to resonate with the emotions of the targeted communities, given the track record on service delivery in the broader sense of social justice."  

Is it feasible? Monyooe says: "It's implausible this promise can be met, given the symphony of lapses in provisioning, especially in disadvantaged communities."

6. Implementing two years of compulsory preschool education and striving for fuller integration of grade R educators in schools' post and remuneration structure.

Is it a good idea? Elizabeth Henning, researcher at the University of Johannesburg's Institute of Childhood Education, says: "Most preschool children grow up without attention or have only daycare in crèches, so for them this would be a good thing. But caregivers will need to be informed about the development of children at this age. Children's spoken language needs to be advanced in many stories, songs and games and they need to learn the sounds of their language very well in preparation for reading."

Is it feasible? She says: "For children who have an attentive caregiver at home who spends quality time with the child, I don't think preschool is required. This needs to be a long-term programme, done in phases." 


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