/ 18 December 2023

Progress has been made but educational inequity remains a blight

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The government’s aim to provide redress of inequalities among the disadvantaged remains elusive

It has been 28 years since the release of the White Paper on Education and Training, the purpose of which was to steer the new government’s overall policy on education in the country. The task facing the government at the time cannot be overlooked. Years of deliberate underinvestment in the infrastructure of black schools under the Bantu Education Act, created and left an immensely unequal education system.

Inheriting such a system, an economy in tatters, and a majority of mostly semi to unskilled workers, the government had limited options to go about reforming the education sector. Operating within this context, it first prioritised improving the access to education for all children in the first decade. This would be done through a serious infrastructure programme to expand the number of schools. 

Much progress was made with the number of operational public schools increasing from 27 004 in 1996 to 28 776 in 2007. And, according to Census 2022 data, the percentage distribution of children aged five attending an educational institution increased from 22.5% in 1996 to 92.4% in 2022.

A significant feat indeed.

But a recent report outlining that 12 000 learners in various parts of the Eastern Cape have to walk more than 10 kilometres to school on a daily basis because there is no bus transport, reminds us of the lingering educational inequalities among the disadvantaged.

Creating the right learning conditions

Every child, black or white, rural or urban, deserves equal educational opportunities. Without this they cannot develop and reach their potential. One way in ensuring some level of equality is by creating a safe and conducive learning environment. In this respect the department of basic education has made consistent progress, but not without hitting some speed humps along the way. For instance, it has reduced the number of schools without a water supply from 8 823 in 2006 to 14 this year and provided electricity to 15 263 from 2006 to date.

But at the same time, it has struggled to accomplish its objective of eradicating pit latrines in schools, with the minister, during a press briefing earlier this year, pointing out that 3 398 schools still used pit latrines. She further said the deadline to eradicate them had been moved by two years to 2025.   

As significant as these challenges are, it must be said that the department’s National School Nutrition Programme, launched in 1994, has been one of the prominent policy successes, providing more than 9.6 million children, mainly in quintiles one to three schools, one meal a day. For many children this is the only meal they get, satisfying a part of their daily nutritional needs and, depending on the time food is served, raising their concentration levels during classes.

Admirable as the policy and its effects are on the lives of many, on its own it is clearly not enough, especially when considering the Thrive by Five Index’s findings released last year, which showed that one in four preschool children showed signs of long-term malnutrition. The study further found that about 65% of children were either cognitively delayed or physically stunted, or both. 

In essence these findings tell us that a significant number of children in low income households will begin grade R at an acute disadvantage to their peers. Ensuring that more learners have a balanced and nutritious selection of food is vital.

One way of doing this for those up to the age of four would be to expand the access of early learning programmes (ELPs), as many of them offer one to two meals to children a day. If you consider that 39.8% of children are not enrolled in any ELPs, just this decision alone would prevent many from suffering the worst forms of child hunger. For this to occur though, greater resources would have to be set aside. But with further budget cuts announced in the medium term budget policy statement, it is difficult to see any increases to the more than R9 billion allocated for the programme. 

For this reason, private donors will have to play an increased supporting role to the government, as they have done with the drive to eradicate pit toilets, by providing additional foodstuffs, cooking material and other equipment. 

Discipline in schools: A growing concern

Ill-discipline at schools has persisted as a problem for some time and continues to worsen. It is not uncommon to hear of fatal stabbings of learners by their fellow peers, the use of narcotic substances, alcohol consumption and the assault of teachers. To give a sense of the extent of the problem, the Free State department of basic education released a report that recorded 65 650 instances of pupil misconduct in the province from July to November this year. These range from cheating in tests and not completing homework to more severe cases such as sexual harassment or abuse. 

These findings point to a much deeper societal problem that cannot be resolved by the government alone. 

Nevertheless, the department has taken one step towards tackling this problem by including a clause in the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill requiring all schools to adopt a code of conduct. This is long overdue. But no matter how strict a code of conduct is in a school, ultimately parents and guardians hold the primary responsibility of supervising their children and instilling in them the correct behaviour and values. 

Undoubtedly, doing so in communities where substance abuse and crime are rife will continue to be difficult until a concerted approach between the government and society that seeks to combat criminality and introduce psychosocial interventions, among others, is agreed upon. 

Even if all of these measures are taken and the learning environment at schools improve, there still remains the problem of addressing the skills capacity of a number of teachers in the basic education system.

The teaching conundrum 

Public spending on education as a share of GDP in South Africa sits at 6.18%, which is higher than many developed countries such as Germany, France and South Korea. Yet according to the Progress In International Reading Literacy Study report, 82% of learners in grade four cannot read for meaning. And study after study illustrates that the performance of our learners in mathematics and science continuously ranks at the lower end in comparison to those in other countries. Several reasons have been provided to explain this, but at the end of the day, it mainly comes down to the number of skilled and qualified teachers at the department’s disposal. 

Time and again, the department has referred to the shortage of maths and science teachers across the country. And over the years it has taken various initiatives, such as implementing the teacher development programme, to resolve this problem and also address the issue of capacity among teachers to teach these two crucial subjects. Admittedly, it does not seem that much progress has been made, with the number of matric learners sitting to write the maths exam dropping from 40.3% in 2020 to 37.2% in 2022. Moreover, of those who did write in 2022 only 22% achieved a pass mark of 50% and above. 

Such outcomes will inevitably also affect the department’s efforts to encourage more matric learners who have passed maths and science to pursue a degree in education. These attempts have already proved difficult primarily because the working conditions and wages of teachers has made teaching as a profession less attractive. 

Simultaneously, the department has been unable to effectively entice the small pool of teachers suitably qualified and skilled in those subjects to take positions in the poorer and often more rural municipalities. In this case, though, little blame can be laid at the feet of the department because a fair amount of these municipalities still lack bulk water, waste water and road infrastructure networks, a legacy of the homelands system. Those that do not, continue to suffer prolonged intervals of poor service delivery, making them undesirable to many.

Some experts have suggested that there be a requirement for all teaching graduates to serve mandatory community service for a specified time. Others have advocated for greater remuneration incentives for teachers working in those areas. There is no easy way around this problem because even if you were to require graduate teachers to do community service for two years at most, it is quite likely that those assigned to rural schools will either reject their allocated post or find creative ways around this just as their counterparts who studied medicine currently do, for the reasons mentioned above.

No easy solutions

All of that being said, it is clear that the road ahead will be a difficult one. Tough decisions will have to be taken, and quickly, especially in the face of a rapidly digitising world, to resolve the remaining impediments to learner success in the country. Despite its missteps, the government has shown that it is capable of turning the situation around. Whether it will do so, however, remains to be seen. 

Mokheseng Moema is a livestock farmer with an interest in politics and history. He holds an honours degree in public policy and administration from the University of Cape Town.