Dear Motshekga, how many more talk shops before we get anywhere?

Almost three decades after the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, South Africa’s education remains mired in crisis. Long-serving Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is no closer to producing a system with learners ready to take their place in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). 

As shown by the matric results announced in January, the future for the majority of matriculants looks bleak. The emphasis is on celebrating the top achievers yet the majority set for the matric scrapheap are forgotten. 

Poverty and addressing the apartheid inequalities remain, with the minister going cap in hand to the cash-strapped treasury for help. But to her credit, Motshekga conceded after the matric circus that it was not all public relations when she presided over a lekgotla in January under the banner Equipping Learners with Knowledge and Skills for a Changing World in the Context of Covid-19. This seventh lekgotla sought to find solutions for a recovery plan for basic education. How many more such talk shops before we get anywhere, dear minister? 

The key issues revolved around the effect of Covid-19; learner drop-out rates and the extent of learning losses; exploring learning recovery approaches and the Department of Basic Education Framework; and assessing progress made in the implementation of programmes to equip learners with knowledge and skills for a changing world. 

One cannot deny, education is a mess. The minister said as much after the lekgotla during her statement on 6 February announcing the return of schools to daily attendance. 

There are many reasons education is in a perilous state. First, one must acknowledge that every aspect of education, from political leadership to administrators, principals, teachers and parents, is lacking in accountability. Everyone is quick to shift the blame and that is why we continue to go around in circles without finding solutions. 

Although money is always cited as an impediment, and it is so, what is required is a mindset change. Education must become a national priority. On the current evidence, it is far from that. Perhaps, as a start, a change of minister would bring fresh thinking to the job?

Motshekga has been in the hot seat since 11 May 2009. Given the difficulties, she has done well. But is Motshekga what we need in the 21st century, given the current dire state of education? 

Even without Covid-19 one would be hard-pressed to say that the teaching profession is in good shape. There are pockets of excellence. But the impression is that the teaching profession is sorely under-performing at all levels. Some schools with poor resources sparkle but, generally, it is the haves who are excelling, maintaining the unequal status quo in our country. 

The narrative of our education system is one characterised by a poor work ethic, not just by teachers but also the learners, principals and the administrators. The overall results speak volumes when one considers only a minority make it to tertiary level, while the rest have unemployment lines to ponder. 

More alarming is another serious problem — the absence of community and parental support. The school governing bodies may have been a step in the right direction, but there has been greater emphasis on the logistical support provided by parents through those bodies as opposed to the value of parents as learner support. 

No more evident is the lack of community support than during service delivery protests; one of the first things that people attack or destroy are schools. Some argue that this comes down to a value system. Why do neighbourhoods not value schools enough to address unruly conduct at places of learning? 

Poor control by educational authorities has affected the system too. The spotlight by education authorities in 2022 on principals whose schools fared below 70% in matric is shocking. Only six years ago, Motshekga told parliament that not a single principal was fired because of poor matric results. Why are we still having this discussion? 

Is it unreasonable to accept that those in charge should be held accountable when they fail our children? This comes at great cost to taxpayers. On the accountability scorecard, the government cannot be absolved from blame. It has set a poor example, boasting about performance agreements with cabinet ministers yet none has been shown the door for ineptitude in office. 

Why should principals be put in the dock when politicians paid for by taxpayers escape without any action against them? 

Politicians have no choice but to do better to ensure the conditions are met to ensure success of the schooling system so that administrators, principals and teachers can be held accountable for their performance. Parents cannot escape blame either. 

In the past, school superintendents were responsible for the management of schools and support of teachers. This has morphed into bureaucratic offshoots in districts where it seems educators are just numbers. 

It makes one wonder how control over educational authorities can be improved with exceptionally low levels of accountability.

Support for teachers has diminished too. Although most of the problems existed before the pandemic, teachers transitioning to online learning did so without adequate support. Scores of children dropped out of the school system, as a result. 

What hope then for the children of the 21st century? President Cyril Ramaphosa is sometimes champion of the 4IR. But he pays lip service to its benefits. 

Last year, there was a study on 4IR in schools and how to make them relevant for the future. But the basic education department has shown no appetite to join the revolution because rote learning still rules. 

Even without Covid-19, the issue of poor support of teachers was a problem. It worsened during the pandemic. But far from blaming the teachers, one must revisit the quality of teaching, and whether the system is geared for excellence. 

Training colleges were an integral part of the country’s DNA. They produced hundreds of thousands of committed teachers. But what they were replaced with appears to be a mutated version. 

I spoke to a teacher who retired after four decades. She said that one of the greatest mistakes was getting rid of the training colleges. It stopped the pipeline and robbed the country of passionate and committed educators. 

Moreover, during the past two decades, thousands of fed-up teachers have left the country. 

The teacher told me that the influence of teacher unions, along with the transfer of power to school governing bodies, undermined teachers. When it came to promotions, competence is not a criterion; there was also nepotism. And schools are poorly managed. 

In addition, teachers are burdened with a heavy workload following the introduction of a National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). This statement is described as a single, comprehensive and concise policy document introduced by the basic education department for all subjects listed in the National Curriculum Statement for grades R to 12. The CAPS gives detailed guidance for teachers on what they should teach and how to assess the learners.

“Yet our kids are coming into schools, not literate and leaving the same,” said this teacher. “Our education system is broken. I am out of the classroom now, but my heart bleeds for our children,” she said. 

Under the CAPS system, children are not taught problem-solving techniques because schools have gone back to rote learning. Teachers are caught up with completing content and assessments are based on content delivered. 

A retired head of department said the curriculum needs an overhaul. There is a need to teach values in formative years, a return to basic, smaller classes, and educators must get help through a classroom aid. 

Furthermore, the CAPS has placed a huge administrative burden on teachers, detracting from teaching. Many who understand the education sector say teachers are demoralised. 

But putting the blame squarely on teachers for the ills of a system that needs surgery is unfair. Educators are not to blame for the pandemic. Poverty is their daily challenge but not their responsibility to eradicate. On top of that they must contend with school budget cuts, unfairly implemented by provincial governments. Overcrowded classrooms remain a major problem.

There is much to fix. But, some, like the young academic whose views I sought, said he believes that as a progressive nation, we must identify the problem areas and turn them into opportunities. To do that, we need to prioritise key areas in which change is possible, bearing in mind that education is in a resource-limited environment. And because overhauling the system requires political appetite and funds — both of which are in low supply. 

Edwin Naidu writes for Higher Education Media Services

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Edwin Naidu
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