/ 18 November 2011

Education’s political nettles

Education's Political Nettles

The politics of education came insistently to mind when Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel released his national development plan on Friday last week. And where basic education at least is concerned, one wonders whether this impressively detailed plan, for all that it identifies some bristling political nettles, really shows how to grasp them.

It was a sheer coincidence that sparked this reflection. While Manuel was talking in Pretoria about a plan that correctly, if obviously, says teacher unions need to be on board for any education rescue plan to work, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union was upping the “war talk” (its phrase) in Bhisho, bringing 53 000 Eastern Cape teachers to the brink of striking — this with matric exams underway.

The plan’s education and training “vision for 2030” forms only one chapter in its 450 pages, and it follows the much shorter diagnostic overview Manuel released in June. Even so, it is comprehensive on all education sectors, not only basic education.

Few would dispute the education malaises the plan identifies or the targets for 2030 it proposes. But it is in the “critical reforms” that the plan outlines after making its various diagnoses and setting its many targets that its real test will lie.

When the plan remarks, with perhaps commendable understatement, that “it is difficult to get unions to move beyond the issue of salary increments to the core professional concern of improving the quality of education”, it looks for a moment as though it is approaching one major nettle. But does it grasp it?

A lost consensus?
Building capacity in education “requires a political consensus”, the plan says. But isn’t that consensus, on education broadly at least, what we thought we had when April 27 1994 dawned? And, if it’s been lost, how will we get it back unless we’re clear about why?

Here, the plan’s serial silences about government policies, as opposed to practices (such as nepotism), that might have contributed to this loss is mirrored in its repeated assertions that most of its diagnoses, targets and recommendations are already contained in departmental plans, strategies and visions.

This oddly complacent feature of the plan creates much of the anti-climax when it elaborates the consensus it wants: “There should be a national education pact,” it says, that should “ideally” be mobilised by the president and involve, well, everyone: the government, political parties, unions, the private sector, student organisations, community groups and so on.

The plan’s mention of communities as necessary to any education turnaround inadvertently puts a spotlight on its near-total eclipse of civil society. Under the heading “Generate and draw support from civil society”, there is one brief para-graph that mentions only school governing bodies.

This suggests a very thin conception of the (chronically underfunded) richness of the work done by civil society organisations.

But, wherever one stands politically, what kind of “political consensus” is possible without their active participation?

An empty pact
It may not be defeatist to note that the idea of a “pact” is unconvincing also for another reason: it’s been tried already. That was in 2005 when Naledi Pandor, then in her first year as education minister, convened a conference in Durban that comprised exactly these stakeholders. But for four days many delegates kept asking each other what it was all for, and nothing concrete ever came from it.

This is not to undervalue the agreements Manuel’s plan says the pact should entail — strikes must occur within the law, for instance.

Nor is it to overlook the cogency with which the plan diagnoses patronage in the civil service and nepotism in education appointments as major reasons for the failure of the school system. Rather, it is to question what kind of teeth such a pact would have.

This reservation qualifies even the most powerful of the instruments Manuel’s document proposes — such as a 6 000-strong group of professionals to assess the functionality of every school in the country and develop tailormade turnaround plans for each of the 80% that are underperforming.

Assuming this is even feasible, would the anaemic-looking “national pact” the document describes enable any such plans to work?

Education and training’s ‘severe problems’
“We need to ensure all children can access and benefit from a ­high-quality education,” the National Planning Commission said in articulating the core of its “education and training vision”.

But the problems the commission says prevent the vision from becoming a reality include:

Early childhood development

  • Children four years old and younger have the highest mortality rate of all South Africans;
  • Stunting affects 18% of children overall and nearly 25% of children in rural areas; and
  • In 2009 only 25% of two-year-olds attended early childhood development centres, compared with 60% of four-year-olds.


  • Low-quality education in ­historically disadvantaged parts of the school system persists;
  • The country loses half of every cohort that enters the schooling system by the end of the 12-year schooling period; and
  • Black and coloured children make up the majority of ­pupils, but it is these schools that “­typically exhibit low proficiency in reading, writing and numeracy”.

Further education, training and skills development

  • Poor throughput — for instance, only 4% of those who started the national ­certificate (vocational) in 2007 had completed it by 2009;
  • Private providers, including non-governmental organisations, “struggle to operate in the post-1994 policy environment because of lack of funding and unsupportive state regulations”;
  • Despite spending “large amounts of money”, the sector education and training authorities “have not made a major contribution to resolving the problems in skills development”.

Higher education

  • “Massive investments” in universities have not produced better outcomes in academic performance or graduation rates;
  • The 17% “participation rate”, that is, enrolment as a proportion of all 20 to 24-year-olds, is “significantly lower than that of comparable middle-income countries”;
  • The participation rate of black and coloured students is only 13%, although two-thirds of all students now are black, compared with 32% in 1990; and
  • Only 34% of academic staff have PhDs.

The targets for 2030
The National Planning Commission’s 2030 vision sets “quantifiable targets”.

“The aim of our proposals is to acknowledge and build on departmental plans and, where necessary, recommend a different way of approaching the problems,” it says. The targets include:

  • Universal access to two years of early childhood development, with the focus on children under the age of five;
  • Eradication of vitamin A deficiency among children;
  • 80% of learners and schools achieving at least 50% in grade three, six and nine literacy, maths and science;
  • 80% of every cohort that starts schooling to complete all 12 years and pass matric;
  • A fourfold increase in the number of matriculating learners eligible for entry to university maths and science bachelor’s degrees;
  • Increase graduation rate at further education and training colleges from the current 40% to 75%;
  • On artisans, the current government target is to produce 10 000 annually and this should increase to 30 000;
  • Increase the participation rate among 20 to 24-year-olds in colleges from the current 4% to 25% — that is, about 1.25-million enrolments compared with 300 000 now;
  • Increase university enrolments from the current 950 000 to 1.6-million;
  • Move to a 25% university graduation rate — that is, 425 000 compared with just under 170 000 now;
  • Produce 100 doctoral graduates per million of the population, up from the current 28; and
  • Increase PhDs among academic staff to 75%, compared with 34% now.

The national development plan’s vision for 2030 on all education sectors will be assessed in M&G articles over the next few weeks. These articles will be commissioned, and readers are also welcome to contribute their own responses to the plan. Email your views to: [email protected]

  • Download the full National Development Plan 2011 here. (5.66MB)

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the www.npconline.co.za address. This has been rectified.