/ 7 July 2017

Success needs a solid foundation

Prioritise early childhood development, teacher professionalism and district capacity.
Prioritise early childhood development, teacher professionalism and district capacity.

The oft-used phrase “The devil in the detail” — which is also the title of a recently published book on the arms deal by Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren for the Institute for Security Studies — is a reminder that, as the dictionary defines the phrase, “plans, actions or situations that seem sound must be carefully examined, because minor details can end up causing major, unforeseen problems”.

I am a great admirer of majestic architectural designs. Four years ago, I took a guided tour of the ancient theatre, the Colosseum, in Rome, Italy, said to have been built in CE 70.

And two years ago, I climbed the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, for some peace and solitude at what remains of the Parthenon temple, said to have been built during the time of Pericles between 447 and 432 BCE.

I am fascinated by the sublime ­aesthetics of such historic designs and am acutely aware that their endurance and sustainability depend on the precision with which their foundations were laid.

Thomson Dawson, senior brand strategist at Blake Project in California in the United States, says: “Ask any architect and they will tell you that the most important aspect of design is not the structure but the foundation.”

He goes on to say that “foundations aren’t as glamorous as the stunning design of the architecture itself, but they are critical to supporting not only the weight of the building, but essential to withstand the constant movement of the earth and the erosion of the soil around it”.

I want to draw on the metaphor of the foundation to address a topical issue that was reported in the article, “Single matric exam a step closer” (Mail & Guardian, June 9 to 14 2017), in which Bongekile Macupe wrote: “The department of basic education is planning to implement a national independent examination council, which will, in part, lead to a single matric examination.”

The planned council seems a fait accompli, given that it has already been approved by the Council of Education Ministers at one of its meetings in 2016.

On May 24, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said her department would appoint a panel of experts “on a short-term contract to conduct this investigation and formulate a concept document on the mechanics of setting up and implementing a National Examinations Council”.

The current terms of reference for the panel are to focus on:

  • The international research and best practice models in countries that have set up similar councils relating to public examinations;
  • The policy implications of setting up and implementing a national executive council structure, and determining the roles of the department of basic education and its provincial counterparts;
  • The design of the most appropriate model of an examination board for South Africa in terms of organisational structure, administration and quality assurance; and
  • The costing of the current examination arrangement across the basic education department and the nine provincial education departments, including monitoring body Umalusi, and the costing of the new arrangement for each of the parties concerned.

Macupe refers to a statement by department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga that it “believes the country would be a further step towards addressing the country’s education shortfalls”.

The basic education department is like a property owner who is attempting to fix a building that has structural damage because its foundation is inconsistent with the architectural principles of precision and specificity.

Logic dictates that, to ensure that four or five years down the line the walls of a building will not start cracking, or the concrete slabs supporting the floors at different storeys will not start collapsing, the developer should lay the foundation compliant with precise measurements, as planned.

There is no doubt that our schooling system is highly challenged and needs fixing. But is fixing required at the exit level or at the foundational levels? This is where I differ with the department. Let me explain.

In April 2011, I was invited by then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, in his capacity as chairperson of the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) of South Africa, to chair the foundational learning technical task team.

The members were drawn from education, organised labour (teachers’ unions Sadtu and Naptosa), economic development, science and technology, industry, research organisations and government.

Expertise, not representation, was the key factor in determining selection. Members had to be recognised leaders or experts in their fields, and have a sound knowledge, understanding of, and interest in basic education.

The role of this technical task team was to identify blockages in the schooling system and propose measures to support the department. Its objectives were:

  • To understand the nature of the current blockages and draw on existing research (reports, studies, evaluations, reviews), as well as look at the current strategy of the basic education department;
  • To talk to experts and consult relevant stakeholders; and
  • To make recommendations on how best to position schooling to support the HRDC’s Commitment 3.

Commitment 3 was about ensuring improved universal access to quality basic education and schooling (up to grade 12) by focusing on dramatically improving the education outcomes for the poor; on equipping learners with optimal capacity for good citizenship; and on the pursuit of post-school vocational education and training or employment.

After almost three and a half years of consultations with the relevant stakeholders and directors in the department, along with the submission of regular reports to the HRDC’s technical working group and the presentation of its preliminary report at the HRDC summit at Gallagher Estate on March  3 and 4 2014, the technical task team tabled its final report at the HRDC meeting which took place at Flavius Mareka TVET College in Sasolburg on October 31 2014.

Among its recommendations, the task team emphasised the need for the department to prioritise early childhood development, teacher professionalism and district capacity to optimally support school principals.

Other recommendations were that the department should:

  • Strengthen the establishment of inter-sectoral management, co-ordination and monitoring of early childhood development;
  • Review the South African Council for Educators (Sace) Act, and by extension Sace itself with regard to its roles, responsibilities, composition and capacity, to ensure that it was fit for purpose with respect to the professionalisation of teachers.
  • Develop a framework for teacher induction and mentoring programmes, with guidelines for content and implementation — including timeframes and drawing all relevant stakeholders into the process.
  • Develop a costing plan to implement a cohesive policy on national education districts, along with transitional plans for gradual access, as outlined in the government’s schooling policy action plan to 2025 — and implement the policy accordingly.
  • Put in place a system to monitor the staff appointments and capacity building required to enhance subject advisory services, set up to aid curriculum implementation, in key subjects and phases.

The work of the foundational learning technical task team should be seen as part of a wide range of other voices on South African schooling — voices of concerned researchers, scholars and interested parties who have, over the years, worked on the challenges of schooling and proposed similar recommendations.

Examples that immediately come to mind are: Jonathan Jansen and Molly Blank’s How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work (2014); Graeme Bloch’s The Toxic Mix: What’s Wrong with South Africa’s Schools and How to Fix It (2009); Brahm Fleisch’s Primary Education in Crisis: Why South African Schoolchildren Underachieve in Reading and Mathematics (2008), and Nick Taylor, Johann Muller and Penny Vinjevold’s Getting Schools Working: Research and Systemic School Reform in South Africa (2003).

During one of the HRDC meetings held at the presidential guest house in Pretoria, a former minister of education remarked that South Africa had rich research on education.

What we need to do now is to roll up our sleeves, implement the recommendations coming from research and put in place robust monitoring and evaluation plans to track progress.

I want to believe that the department of basic education hears these voices.

Does it? And, crucially, is it able to decipher the devil in this maze of detail and take that giant leap of faith towards the desired implementation?

Moeketsi Letseka is professor of philosophy of education at Unisa