South Africa

Basic education: Some gloom, some doom and a mountain still to be done

By Osiame Molefe 13 June 2012

As the basic education department chalks up another year, its performance report shows that South Africa might need to curb its middle-income-country aspirations. Schools infrastructure and teacher education, particularly, are nowhere near the levels they should be to prepare pupils for the demands of the modern workplace. By OSIAME MOLEFE

The basic education department has a clear enough mandate: lead the country’s provinces, districts and schools in the creation of an education system that prepares pupils for life in the 21st century. To help it achieve this, the department received R14-billion in the 2011/12 financial year alone.

However, a decade into the new century, it remains debatable whether the pupils the education system produces would meet the demands of the previous century, let alone those of an increasingly digitised, knowledge-driven world.

Presenting its performance for the previous financial year, the department told the parliamentary committee on basic education on Tuesday that between April 2011 and March 2012 alone, it had been subject to 12 court cases, six of which have been resolved in one way or another. The most prominent cases relate to infrastructure in schools, textbooks and textbook delivery, and the supply of appropriately qualified teachers.

On infrastructure, the department is faced with the mammoth task of equalising the hugely discordant circumstances under which pupils are expected to fulfil their potential. While some public schools are comparable to their private school peers, others, like the Eastern Cape’s 395 “mud schools”, lack basic infrastructure such as buildings, sanitation facilities, sports fields, libraries and laboratories. For these schools, before the department can even think about rolling out its new-century initiatives, like using information technology in education, the basics must first be put in place.

According to the 2011 national education infrastructure management system, of the 25,000 public schools in the country, only 7% had libraries, over 10,000 still used pit toilets, approximately 3,000 were without electricity and water, and in excess of 90% lacked stocked computer centres and laboratories.

To right this, the department set itself the target of having the most basic levels of infrastructure in place at 88% of the country’s public schools by 31 March 2012. However, by that date only 55% could boast meeting this modest target, according to the department’s presentation to the committee.

Teachers supply is another area where the education system performed poorly. About 3 million public school pupils are made to learn in classes with 44 or more other students, far above what would be considered manageable for even the most well-trained teacher. The failed Eastern Cape education department – where basic education minister Angie Motshekga plans to oppose a lawsuit to compel her to fill over 60,000 vacancies – only recruited 60 new first-time under-30 teachers. This while the national new teacher recruitment level far exceeded the 6,200 the department had set for the year.

Teacher training was also dealt a blow as the department did not meet its target of implementing the integrated framework for teacher education by March 2012. The framework was supposed to improve the quality of teacher education and development. However, the concept document has yet to be approved, the department said.

The department also failed to meet its targets for teachers adequately trained to identify and respond to pupils with special needs.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Though the department faced at least two lawsuits over textbooks in the past 12 months, the majority of schools received their material. To improve performance on this target, basic education deputy director-general Vivienne Carlse told Parliament’s portfolio committee that this year pupil material will be delivered from November to ensure that it is all delivered for the start of the new school year.

The department also finally signed agreements that will see over 1,600 schools provided with broadband connectivity for three years. It also held successful school governing body elections, a key part of seeing principals and administrators held accountable for the performance of individual schools.

Despite the silver lining, the education system’s difficulties manifest in the performance of the pupils it produces. Though the pass rate has been steadily climbing since 1994, the quality of the passes remains poor. At the beginning of 2011, the department aimed to have 158,000 pupils pass grade 12 maths and 150,000 pass grade 12 science. By the end of the year, only 104,000 and 96,000 respectively had passed. For context, almost 500,000 pupils wrote the 2011 grade 12 exams.

The department said it would hold its second ever round of annual national assessments in September 2012, this time expanded to assess the numeracy and literacy of pupils in grades 1 to 6 and grade 9. It hopes to double the results of the 2011 assessments by having at least 53% and 46% of grade 3 and grade 6 learners respectively reading and doing maths at a level commensurate to their grade. Again, a modest target, but it appears this is the best the system can hope for at the moment. DM

Read more:

  • E-education: A virtual dream for many public school students, in Daily Maverick
  • Minister faces court over teaching posts, in Business Day

Photo: A school pupil peers out from behind a broken window in Cape Town in this February 1999 file photo.  (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/Files)


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