Basic education’s turnaround plans

Parmosivea Bobby Soobrayan has been appointed director general of the department of basic education. His appointment comes at a time when there is immense political and public pressure for the education system to deliver good matric exam results. Soobrayan started as a physical and general science teacher in Durban in the 1980s and joined the then University of Natal as a researcher and lecturer. He served the department of education as chief director of planning, then as a deputy director general: planning and monitoring during the Sibusiso Bengu and Kader Asmal tenures before joining the South African Management Development Institute as director. The Teacher quizzed him on his plans to turn around the education system.
Last year six provinces reportedly overspent on their budgets and there was no money to pay teachers and support staff. What measures are you going to apply to ensure this does not happen again?
The legislative mandate of the department of basic education sets out the key responsibilities to develop and maintain national policies for the basic-education sector. It is also the responsibility of the department to work closely with provincial departments to ensure that provincial budgets and strategies support national policies.

You sent in a crack team to sort out the administration of the matric exam in Mpumalanga, where 60 provincial exam officials are getting paid to do nothing. What are you doing to avoid further waste of taxpayers’ money?  
The department is working closely with the Mpumalanga education department to ensure that the problems that have been experienced over the past years will not recur. The provincial education department is responsible for the redeployment of officials in the province.

There is a perception that you are centralising power, judging by the recent deployment of a team to Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape in the past years. Can we expect more of these steps in provinces that perform badly? 
Through the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) and the Heads of Education Committee (Hedcom) we have established clear targets for the system. It is the responsibility of the national department to assist provinces that are struggling to deal with specific challenges. And the National Education Policy Act compels the minister and the department to monitor and report on the implementation of education policies, as well as the progress of the system, and to intervene where necessary. 
What will you do to avoid a repetition of the dismal matric pass rates recorded in 2008 and 2009? 
Through the CEM and Hedcom we established clear targets for the system. Underperforming and poor-performing schools have been identified and provincial departments are working closely with those schools to ensure that they have turnaround strategies in place. Schools have been charged with the responsibility of holding holiday classes and extra classes. The department is supporting schools through the publication of study guides and past examination papers to ensure that learners are prepared through directed revision.

The minister has allocated R11-million for the 2010-11 year to set up the National Education Evaluation Development Unit (Needu). When is it going to start operating? 
Needu became operational on April 1 2010. Interviews for the [position of] head of the unit will be conducted shortly. We do envisage that the unit will set up its infrastructure during the course of the year and that it will be able to target only a small section of the system this year. Needu will report directly to the minister and will function independently of the department. 

Education gets a lion’s share of the annual national budget, yet the overall results do not justify this and some feel it is high time the department kicked ass in dealing with teacher underperformance. Would you agree? 
Teacher performance is critical to quality education and learner achievement. A significant intervention in this regard is the establishment of Needu in 2010. It will be a professional facility dedicated to purposes of monitoring, evaluation and support. Needu will play a part in identifying weaknesses in terms of teacher performance, but this will be linked to a focused teacher-developmental strategy. A key deliverable in June 2010 will be the National Teacher Development Plan emanating from the multistakeholder working groups established after the National Teacher Development Summit held in June 2009. This detailed plan will focus on teacher development over the next five years and the longer-term plan is to ensure a sustainable teacher development system.

How will Needu materially differ from its predecessors: the Development Appraisal System, Whole School Evaluation and recently the Integrated Quality Management System (IQMS)? Aren’t you reinventing the wheel here? 
There is clearly some overlap with all these interventions and the Needu. However, Needu will function independently. We will request Needu to advise us in this regard. We cannot prescribe to the unit. 

Some say the South African Democratic Teachers Union abuses its numerical strength to disrupt learning and teaching. How are you going to rein them in?
All teacher unions have committed themselves to a social contract for achieving quality learning and teaching. The unions led the way in committing themselves to a code of conduct as part of the Quality Learning and Teaching campaign. They are working closely with us to ensure that we uphold the non-negotiables in education, as identified by President Jacob Zuma, that teachers must be in class, on time and teaching, that parents must support their children and their teachers and that department officials must support teachers and schools. 

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Thabo Mohlala
Guest Author

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