/ 7 August 2009

Still in the shadow of the past

Mokubung Nkomo reviews a book that considers the achievements, challenges and contradictions of educational transformation

Educational Change in South Africa: Refelections on Local Realities, Practices and Reforms edited by Everard Weber (Sense Publishers, 2008)

The post-1994 experience of educational change has been both spectacular and painful: spectacular in the achievement of major structural changes and painful in the tenacity of deep-rooted practices and belief systems associated with the apartheid past.

The enduring challenges are demonstrated in the knowledge inheritance of a large segment of the ‘new bureaucracy” that thwarts creative or innovative thinking, as well as an inability that undermines effective management of the transformation process.

Certain attitudes and behavioural retentions of past practices militate against breaking the old ways of thinking and doing things.

Educational Change in South Africa
can best be described as a brave foray into what the editor of the volume, Everard Weber, encapsulates as:

    ‘(a) Focus[ing] on change through — the details of the specific reforms;
    ‘(b) Study[ing] the meanings and processes of change in South Africa — [and] how — we explain the contradictory contours and contexts of change;
    ‘(c) [Examining] change from the perspective of a country situated geographically and culturally in the South; and
    ‘(d) — speak[ing] more broadly to the nature of post-apartheid society and its place in an increasingly integrated world.”

The book is organised into five sections: curriculum and pedagogy; teacher education; schools; higher education; and systemic change. These are undoubtedly areas that will continue to command critical attention in the years ahead.

What emerges as a common thread throughout is the disjuncture between policy and practice and a tendency, in many instances, to rely heavily on a
top-down methodology. These shortcomings suggest a lack of policy literacy on the part of many authorities and, of course, the capacity deficit that debilitates the transformation project.

Another part of the quagmire is the large numbers of teachers who lack the minimum professional qualifications and are burdened with documentation. They are dislocated, disaffected and alienated from the entire experience and are the weakest link in the teaching-learning chain.

The authors featured in the volume come from various tertiary institutions and their accounts, by and large, are based on empirical research, which gives the volume authority.

Each in their own way grapples with pertinent issues relating to either obstacles encountered or opportunities availed. This means that further work will have to be done to address the gaps, weaknesses and, where opportunities and strengths are registered, what measures to undertake to ensure sustainability.

In their concluding chapter, Crane Soudien and Dave Gilmore provide a litany of education problems faced by South Africa, especially in the area of learner performance, where they are outdone by learners in countries that are either socioeconomically comparable or less so.

The poor performance does not suggest a low intelligence endowment among, in particular, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Their assessment is that: ‘Today it is difficult to talk about educational change without analysing the relations of socio economic and racial inequity and inequality, and linking these to overarching concerns about democracy and social justice in the new South Africa.” A failure to grasp this fact fully, as well as the lack of political vision and will are the crux of the challenge.

They continue: ‘Teachers are at the centre of the analysis developed above — we suggest, the general South African school has not been set up to deal with the challenges of the past. This is a central conclusion to which one must come.”

One culprit is a proclivity for wholesale importation of policy prescriptions that disregard local history, context, sensibilities, temperaments, and so on.

In his introduction to the volume, Weber has this in mind when he observes that there is a need ‘to examine change from the perspective of a country situated geographically, and culturally in the South”. Disregard for this reality has serious psychosocial consequences that spill into disaffection and cognitive dissonance.

Put simply, it results in disempowerment that has disastrous consequences for the individual and society at large.

The general-knowledge deficit, the perennial matric odium and the abysmal throughput at tertiary institutions don’t augur well for the future.

I would be remiss not to point out some omissions or oversights that, though not fatal, nevertheless leave unnecessary scars on an otherwise splendid work. Some of the examples are:

  • The catalytic role that visionary and transformative leadership can play in education change;
  • Gender equity as not only a desirable moral impulse but also a practical imperative in all societies, which therefore cannot be ignored;
  • Language of instruction as the invisible Achilles heel;
  • And, finally, that the content of what is taught in many education institutions has not been transformed in any remarkable way.

Of course, no one volume can achieve this level of comprehensiveness.Nevertheless, students exposed to

Educational Change in South Africa will be all the better enlightened about the achievements and what challenges remain. This latest offering in the discourse on educational change is a welcome contribution and therefore highly recommended.

The enduring ideology of the 21st century and onwards is the ideology of knowledge — what is commonly referred to as the knowledge economy. Without this capital, no society can remain sovereign and prosperous.

Educational Change in South Africa is part of an emerging body of work that sheds brighter light on what needs to be done in order to acquire this vital capital.

Mokubung Nkomo is a professor at the University of Pretoria. A longer version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the South African Journal of Higher Education