/ 31 January 2020

Five changes that can fix the school system

Graphic Edu Schooling Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)


As we embark on a new school year, it is an opportune time to ask some difficult questions about whether we are doing enough to give our country’s children the education they deserve. It has been clear for decades that our education sector is in crisis, with far too many children struggling to complete schooling that prepares them for the modern world. We must ask whether the solutions proposed address what ails our school system.

The proposed grade 9 certificate by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga does not confront the root causes of poor quality education.

What society sets 30% and 40% as pass rates for its children in a modern knowledge-driven global community? What society tolerates 20% absenteeism of teachers on Mondays and Fridays, rising to 33% at month-end? What society tolerates the culture that has made normal the practice that in schools serving predominantly poor black children only an average 3.5 hours a day is spent teaching compared with 6.5 hours in the middle and upper-class schools?

All children are born with an innate capability to be the best at what interests them — provided the environment in the home, school and wider society nurtures them with love and support to self-actualise.

We have a system failure that results in close to 50% of each age cohort of children starting school each year ending up dropping out of school before grade 12. Of those who write matric a tiny percentage (14% bachelor and 12% diploma passes) ends up with high enough grades to enter tertiary level studies. The drop-out rate at tertiary is 25%. Only 4% of the cohort eventually obtains a degree.

How in the world of the fourth industrial revolution do we think we can be competitive?

It is unthinkable that a society that claims to believe in social justice would even contemplate throwing the very children we have failed out of the school system with a meaningless grade 9 certificate. These children are known from international- and Africa-based studies to be unable to read with meaning, nor write sensibly, nor compute numbers. How can we turn our backs on them in the name of giving them a choice?

Have we not learnt anything from the 30% of matriculants who are stranded among the ranks of the unemployed with equally meaningless learnership certificates? The latter only benefit those well connected enough to mine the rich ores of the largely failed Sectoral Education and Training Authority (Seta) system. What kind of society continuously undermines the seed of its future in the name of experimentation with models that have failed elsewhere?

We have many examples of excellent schools operating in poor, troubled areas yet succeeding in nurturing talent and inspiring excellence. Mbilwi High School in Venda, the Leap Schools in Langa, Diepsloot and Jane Furse, Inanda in Durban townships and many more. The success factor in all is dedicated teachers with a learner-focused approach and promotion of pride in the identity, language and culture of all children.

Poverty can’t end without quality education

A recent study by the International Monetary Fund,titled Struggling to Make the Grade, reviews the work by our own experts, including economist Servaas van den Berg, and concludes that our core problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment are unlikely to be effectively addressed without tackling the chronic quality problems in our school system.

The salient factors they identify for interventions are well known to our public policy leaders, as well as by the private sector that stand to benefit from higher education outcomes. The study identifies practical interventions to address these problems.

First, we need to tackle the weak content knowledge of teachers in schools in poor areas, which impairs their ability to even assess the severity of the quality problems in their own settings. Longer term teacher training interventions have a large effect on learner outcomes.

Second, the language of instruction is one of the biggest barriers to quality education. Mother tongue instruction is universally accepted as the best foundation for building confident, positive identities and enhancing learning outcomes. Our government must pursue an active programme of investing in indigenous language teaching and learning.

The imposition of English as a medium of instruction under the guise of parental choice has caused untold damage to our education. There is a widespread misguided view by many black people that learning in English is best for future job prospects of their children.

Third, the teachers’ pay is competitive internationally, but it fails to result in higher learner outcomes because of its flat structure. Performance-based pay, as is the practice in most professions, would increase accountability for higher quality outcomes. Experiences in India and Kenya show a significant effect on learner outcomes as a result performance-based pay for teachers. Such pay could also attract good teachers to poor, rural areas.

Fourth, principals’ roles should be extended beyond administrative and managerial duties to include instructional leadership to model excellence in teaching. Consideration should be given to shared sports and other amenities to support the holistic development of young people and create enjoyable extracurricular programmes.

Fifth, it is critical that parents and other adults are encouraged to take ownership of the school and put it at the centre of their community. Community ownership enhances safety. Every school could create vegetable gardens and plant indigenous trees to raise awareness about nature, environmental health and climate change. Schools as centres of communities provide avenues for engagements that build stronger solidarity between parents and teachers in service of better quality learning outcomes and professional satisfaction.

The start of a new decade calls for a fresh commitment to solving the problems that plague our educational system. We need to have the humility to admit our missteps. Promoting vocational and technical training learning pathways need to be seamlessly connected to our school system as successful countries such as Germany, Singapore and others are doing. Our children deserve nothing less as they enter 2020 full of hopes and dreams for their future.

Mamphela Ramphele is the co-founder of ReimagineSA, a public benefit organisation and nonprofit