Education must work with change

South Africans should celebrate the pockets of success in education. The journey has been long and the struggle for improved education continues.

The plod from the 1990s’ Curriculum 2005 to the new curriculum, Caps (curriculum assessment policy statements), has been arduous. The changes have created uncertainty and have not pleased many teachers, who argue that they are never given time to understand the innovations. They have also complained about the speed of the change.

But we need to welcome an implementation that was successful for one group of pupils – those who were the first to write the Caps matric in 2014.

The introduction of the compulsory grade R year is also commendable and should go a long way towards addressing some of the challenges in the foundation phase (grades one to three), although its practicability has still to be tested fully.

The conscious effort to recruit foundation phase teachers whose training has included indigenous languages is another great milestone. South Africa needs more teachers to teach in the vernacular, especially because Caps seeks to advance the use of indigenous languages in grades one to three.

By now, our teachers, although overwhelmed by these changes for 20 years, should have begun to internalise them. Curriculum revisions should be applauded because they show that we realise when a system is not proving feasible in the classroom.

The matric results have also improved gradually since 2009, although we still need to improve the education level of pupils who want to enrol at universities.

Neglecting the foundation
The annual national assessment (ANA) results reveal there are major problems in our lower grades. A possible cause might be that we forget about the foundation and intermediate phases (grades one to six) because we place most of our focus on matric. But we cannot have a strong matric class if we neglect the lower grades.

The ANA results since 2011 illustrate that South Africa still lags behind in literacy and numeracy. Unfortunately, these are warning signs we overlook, hoping these pupils will miraculously improve by grade 12. Without other tools, the ANAs have become a crucial instrument to diagnose our system’s problems.

In 2014, the grade nines had the lowest achievements in literacy and numeracy yet. The ANAs have shown very few improvements since 2011, and they have partly uncovered why our education is failing.

However, even with the ANAs, we have not provided the right therapies for the ailing system. Among these potential panaceas is continuing teacher development.

A major gripe about 2014’s matric results was that teachers were not adequately equipped for the new parts of Caps. This has been a major flaw since Curriculum 2005, which was introduced in 1998 as the first post-apartheid system.

We tend to leave teachers outside the policy-planning loop, as research shows. This is a grievous fault, given that teachers implement the innovations.

Snapshot workshops
We need sustained, formal, professional development programmes rather than “snapshot” workshops that intermittently train teachers for a few days at a time.

Sustained programmes are expensive but we can devise cost-effective models such as “train the trainer”. These would go a long way towards tackling critical areas in our schools. We compound problems if we innovate but then also expect undertrained teachers to be innovative.

We have had many sound proposals of post-apartheid education policies. That we have also been able to change or revise when necessary is also commendable, because of how we have been trying to strengthen the system from outcomes-based education to Caps. Education policy change, though, must ensure that teachers can always keep up with education changes, which need to be methodical and well planned.

District and provincial officials should work constantly with teachers as they develop their craft. In countries with the most successful education systems, teachers are the leaders in change. The paradox we have created is that, with every initiative change, we send disgruntled teachers into classrooms. But our reforms will be only as good as our teachers, which means empowering school leaders, too.

According to the ground-breaking, evidence-based Zenex Foundation’s research of the Advanced Certificate in Education, empowerment of principals to guide schools effectively is clearly crucial. The basic education department piloted the certificate in a few universities in 2007. Its results demonstrated our schools will benefit from school principals being well prepared for leadership and management positions.

Worldwide research confirms that effective school principals improve pupil achievement. If school principals don’t lead change initiatives, these will falter.

More diverse schools
Our schools are becoming more diverse, and instructional leaders should help to produce quality learning and teaching. Such leaders also engender a culture of reflective practice, which is still scarce in many classrooms. Without leaders like these, some teachers won’t understand how to deal with curricular changes.

Perhaps the most disservice education reforms engender societally are widening class gaps between the affluent and the poor. There are still many poor rural schools that have unqualified and underqualified teachers. Many of the schools do not have amenities such as ablution facilities, laboratories and libraries.

Many poor parents and families are trapped in dysfunctional township schools, which are crippled by the exodus of pupils from historically black schools to others, to which parents bus their children, seeking what they think is better education.

One unplanned consequence of making basic education a legal right of all races since 1994 has been the neglect of township pupils.

There are also farm children in dilapidated structures with few teachers. Two decades after demo-cracy, some children still study under trees in rural Eastern Cape and Limpopo, sometimes with fatal results. A young boy fell into a makeshift latrine and died on his first day at school in 2013.

Perhaps Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi’s plan to “twin” schools could help affluent schools enrich poor schools in some ways.

We have moved a long way since 1994. Many educationists should be lauded for making change comprehensible to teachers and pupils.

Education is complex, though – at times tinkering will be necessary and at other times total overhaul will be sensible, but we should desperately try to minimise any crisis. We owe it to future generations to get education reforms right.

Professor Vuyisile Msila is the head of Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies. He writes in his personal capacity

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