How to change the system

South Africa’s current educational system is very young and very new. The major legislation that expunged the labyrinthine, racist and pedagogically brutal system of the apartheid era was passed by Parliament in 1996, a mere six years ago. And in that brief period, massive attempts have been made to reorient the system of schooling.

As Shireen Motala and Michele Berger have pointed out in their unpublished study, Review of Education in South Africa, 1994 - 2001, the system itself has to be functional for the implementation of new policies to take place.
Even then, they assert, “major pedagogical changes and improvements in a national system may take a decade or more to institutionalise”.

Therefore, though continual critical commentary on educational developments is necessary and possible, it is still very early to make definitive or declarative judgements about what has been achieved through the implementation of policy. However, when the attempts at educational transformation are regarded from the perspective of people on the ground, as distinct from those of policymakers, planners and bureaucrats, then achievements and failures, as well as areas of complete disregard, are more clearly discernible.

Given the energetic and important nature of educational debate in South Africa (but among whom?), as well as the deeper importance of the belief of so many people that education offers an escape from poverty and other crushing circumscriptions, there is always lively attention paid to aspects of new developments in this country’s educational saga.

During Sibusiso Bengu’s period (1994 to 1999) as minister of education, we had downpours of legislation after snowstorms of Papers (White and Green) at national and provincial levels so as to lay the foundations for a reconfigured, reconceptualised system of education consonant with the values and hard-won priorities of the struggle for liberation. One clear area of dispute is whether the new educational system is in fact consonant with those priorities.

Sixteen (or was it 19?) systems had to be brought into one with nine sub-systems of its own. Thousands of officials had to be reorganised and replaced. Hundreds of thousands of teachers had to be relocated and millions of learners had to be accommodated, all as part of the initial, crude and overt process towards basic forms of equity in South African education. Simultaneously, the school curriculum had to be overhauled and a major decision was taken: to move away from input-oriented, content-based curricula and norm-referenced assessment to outcomes-based, competency-defined curricula with criteria-referenced forms of assessment. (Whew!)

Whatever one understands by this, the real point is about the extent and the degree to which change was introduced over a short period of time, within the context of flux of necessary and major changes in most spheres and sectors of public life. How much, then, was it possible to achieve in so brief and so intense a period?

Upon assuming office in 1999, President Thabo Mbeki set the goals of the next educational reforms in his State of the Nation address, in which he emphasised the implementation of policy and service delivery. The new Minister of Education, Kader Asmal, in his Status Report, acknowledged that “inequality is still writ large in the education system, and too many families are on the receiving end of an unacceptably low standard of education delivery”. Furthermore, Asmal reported: “The public believes that we have a crisis on our hands. Our people have rights to education that the state is not upholding. They have put their confidence in the democratic process, and returned their government with an overwhelming mandate. After five years of democratic reconstruction and development, the people are entitled to a better education service and they must have it (August 1999).”

Following this, Asmal announced the nine priorities of Tirisano, which translated into five programme areas: HIV/Aids, school effectiveness and teacher professionalism, the fight against illiteracy, further education and training and higher education, and the organisational effectiveness of national and provincial systems to implement policy.

During the five years of Bengu’s ministry, academics and critical commentators, in papers given at conferences and chapters written for books, were preoccupied overwhelmingly with the effects of globalisation upon South Africa’s economy and education. This subject appears to outnumber all other topics given attention in public during 1994 to 1999. And this preoccupation is closely allied to questions of the market, labour, educational reform and also, logically, with the impact of financial and fiscal policies on education.

The anthology of essays, Education After Apartheid, edited by Peter Kallaway, Glenda Kruss, Aslam Fataar and Gari Donn, was published precociously in 1997, and reprinted in 1998, presumably because it was needed and used by students. It asserts, argumentatively, that “the master narrative of educational reform has, to a large extent, been framed by the international neo-liberal guidelines of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund ... The relationship between global politics of education and the goals of a democratic post-apartheid society in South Africa provides a focus for this collection.”

Is it intellectually responsible at this stage to be so preoccupied with the global? Is this not symptomatic of a desire to shed responsibility for the gritty politics of the local and the particular so as to contribute to what Kallaway calls “the great educational issues of our age”?

As the essays in Education and Equity demonstrate, fascination with one’s vulnerabilities in the face of the glacier-like inexorability of globalisation, no matter how attractive, is not the way through to intellectual or political maturity.

Though prissy elders used to say that comparisons are odious, they are the stuff of enquiry and, like guessing, are one of the building blocks of learning.

The Kallaway collection is a largely staid set of essays, written in styles and observing conventions that became familiar in the later 1980s and early 1990s. It tends to deal with education in its more familiar chunks and will be of use to the less interesting students in university education courses. The analysis here, from an increasingly mellow Left position, now has an air of orthodoxy about it, as if it was trying to capture the new debates using the older methods.

Education and Equity’s subtitle, The Impact of State Policies on South African Education, suggests the overall intent of the collection as well as a more hard-edged stance towards issues than before. Indeed, as the preface points out, the contributions to this book were workshopped and discussed by all concerned as the material and the collection developed. And although this study has education as its locus, the analysis explicitly explores the nature of the post-apartheid, transitional state through the lens of what has happened to education from 1994 to 1999. It is not so much that it is an other perspective on this period that makes the difference, but the means whereby this period is explored four years later than the Kallaway collection. As all educators know, the real ideology lies in the method and not in the content.

The papers in Education and Equity argue that it was the adoption of the growth, employment and redistribution fiscal policy (Gear) in 1996 that set crippling limits on what it might have been possible to achieve in education, and that the years since have shown what has proved to be beyond the capacity of the state and society to achieve.

Two papers in particular look directly at the impact of economic policies on education in the last years of the previous century. Katerina Nicolou’s extensive (50-page!) attention to the Link Between Macroeconomic Policies, Education Policies and the Education Budget concludes that “macroeconomic policies have experienced a shift in the degree of state intervention as a result of fiscal discipline”, and that “in the course of the shift [,] social redress, poverty eradication and the promotion of greater equality have become sidelined”.

The second is the trenchant analysis by Salim Vally and Console Tleane on The Rationalisation of Teachers and the Quest for Social Justice in an Age of Fiscal Austerity. Two terms jump out here: “age” and “fiscal austerity”. We are familiar with those terms that were bequeathed to us by historians, such as the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, and, bless its soul, the Age of Enlightenment. But the Age of Fiscal Austerity!

Bleak images of brutal bean-counting plus the passionless insistence upon the primacy of numbers are evoked by this Age of Austerity, where joy is rationed and hence available to only the few, and where sufficiency is determined by what bureaucrats decide. We are indeed in the realm where “the Good Samaritan was a bad economist” (Dickens, Hard Times).

And speaking of bureaucrats, we should welcome heartily Enver Motala’s elegant essay, On Bureaucracy, in which he discusses how the public service, and the bureaucracy within it, has to meet the urgent demands of service delivery and those of structural transformation.

Motala achieves a number of things by using his experience and insight. For example, he comments on a neglected but highly significant area of policy implementation by the public service. And he writes usefully about the unresolved tensions that transformation continues to live with. He also provides an intellectual basis for further discussions of this kind, as an important area of focus within the discourse around educational and other forms of social transformation.

To my mind, the strength of Education and Equity lies in the fact that it sets the discussion at a strong but not overbearing theoretical level and proceeds from the direct knowledge that state policies have not impacted sufficiently upon thousands and thousands of South Africans whose ordinary needs the state is so far incapable of meeting. Recent articles have indicated how, in the words of Salim Vally, “public discourse on our schooling system has entered the realm of the absurd” by failing to take cognisance of the fact that so very many children in South Africa live in dire poverty. (“Suffer the children”, Mail & Guardian, July 12 to 18 2002)

Now this kind of assertion could appear to represent the opposite pole to those so concerned with the effects of the global upon education. Intensely local, intently concerned with the manifest and immediate effects of policy, and with a focus that highlights the communal and the individual material circumstances, such a point of departure asserts the beginning and the end of all policy. Yet we know that those in power and with access to resources are not going to be moved by such appeals. It is something else that must compel them to attend to the needs of the poor, the young, the marginalised and the neglected.

And this is where the stance taken by Education and Equity is important and different from attitudes previously expressed. As the introduction (by Enver Motala and Mala Singh) asserts: “The analysis presented in these papers is directed at more than symptomatic issues such as the weaknesses, interruption, or breakdown of services for which the state is responsible ... The research presented here regards [the view that the failure of policies is attributable to incompetent bureaucracy, lack of planning, scarcity of resources and so on] as untenable because the separation of policy and implementation processes obscures the integral nature of the relationship between them.”

This is the key point, for it permits the bringing together of the local and the global into thinking that is concerned with quality, social justice and, in real terms, the equity that is the proclaimed aim of the government. Arguments based on that premise have real power and practical meaning, for they can be used to mobilise people into action because they are deeply serious about the achievement of equity. In this collection of essays we have ideas that are meant to change the system, not merely describe it.

Michael Gardiner currently works at the Education Policy Unit, University of the Witwatersrand

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