South Africa


Our education system is broken, and unless we fix it, all else is doomed

The biggest issue South Africa faces today is equity, especially in education.. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Lucky Nxumalo)

If education is given a number one priority rating then everything else falls into place. But you can’t fix a broken system by simply imposing new systems from above – change needs to start at the grassroots, and achieving equity must be the objective.

The time has come for all South Africans to realise that if we don’t do something about the pitiful state of education, it will continue to polarise the wealthy, well-resourced schools from the poorest of the poor. To this end, I cannot stress more urgently that if we continue along the same route that we have been travelling since 1994, then by the end of next year, there will scarcely be any functioning schools.

In 2020 a survey was completed to benchmark the quality of education within a country at a global level. Finland was ranked first, followed by Japan (2), South Korea (3), and Denmark (4). According to News24, South Africa is ranked second-last in the world. We were ranked 75 out of a total of 76 countries. Only the elite will ultimately survive this educational crisis.

In this climate, no doubt a host of new schools will take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic. They seem to be popping up everywhere. Several schools will get accreditation and will be financed by large corporates, while others will be “fly-by-night” schools, which only open to make quick money and then disappear, never to be seen again.

Covid-19 has also given parents choices in education such as homeschooling and online teaching, for those who have managed to bridge the digital divide. This is once again only going to further destroy any hope of equity. This state of affairs is the very antithesis of what educators are endeavouring to achieve — an equitable education for all children.

Having a small (6%) elite group of well-educated children is not good enough. The vast majority of South Africans remain semi-educated. The government has just released a 15-point plan to ensure that no child fails school. Reading through this policy, it is clear that standards will be lowered to suit each child. Furthermore, the lowering of standards to such a level that children cannot fail is equally unacceptable. Only by improving the quality of education for all children will equity be achieved and our global ranking lifted to a more acceptable level.

Having said this, I believe now is the perfect time to make changes to the curriculum. The rationale for this is based on two fundamental issues. The first one being that our schooling system sits comfortably in the First Industrial Revolution (we should be in the Fourth), making it more than 100 years old, the only significant difference being that technology has replaced Latin in most schools!

Second, the exponential growth worldwide of technology can no longer be ignored. Covid-19 has exacerbated the need for educational change in that it has exposed many different approaches to learning while children were in lockdown. Teachers must also be commended for their extra efforts in creating online teaching programmes, some of them working many hours overtime to do so, with reduced salaries.

I am cautious, however, that many schools will not take the plunge and will continue teaching as they have done since their time of existence. I want to highlight six assumptions and four determinants that could promote curriculum growth and sustainability.   

The government’s 15-point plan to prevent failure and create jobs for all

According to the National Coronavirus Command Centre, the Covid-19 pandemic had peaked, and was on a downward slope, but it now seems to be boomeranging back. Almost all schools have opened their doors, allowing children and teachers to commence learning and teaching (under strict conditions, including wearing masks, social distancing and sanitising).

I was reasonably optimistic that this pandemic would force much-needed educational change in that teachers would have to use technology and other forms of teaching and learning strategies such as blended or flip teaching, rather than relying on blackboards, whiteboards or, even worse, old handouts. Inasmuch as most people fear change, schools and universities should be at the forefront of the 4IR initiative, educating people for the future, thus ensuring that on graduating from higher learning, they will have jobs.

The biggest concern I have is for the poor, less-resourced schools. I say this, because every time there is some form of national curriculum change, the gap between the poor and rich widens and the likelihood of equity and equality deepens. To this end, I believe the Department of Education is going to improve the quality of learning and teaching by introducing into the curriculum a new 15-point plan. This will include new subjects such as technology and indigenous languages. It is promulgated that these new skills will almost guarantee students jobs on graduating from higher learning institutions.

But I find the document, even if it is in its early stages and very much a work in progress, concerning, because it clearly shows that the mistakes made in the past are still in evidence today. The elephant in the room is the “How”. Implementation is the most critical determinant, and should be the starting point of any new educational initiative, not the endpoint.

This new policy document accepts the fact that schools have failed dismally. Instead of endeavouring to get to the root causes as to why we keep failing, we should be analysing the “bigger picture”. With only 52% of learners staying on until Grade 12 (compared to 80% from other emerging countries), unemployment continues to rise and now stands at a dismal 43.1% (including discouraged work-seekers). On a global scale, when compared to other emerging countries, South Africa is very close to the bottom.

Most of the document focuses on a “non-failure” policy, rather than a “lifting-of-standards” policy. For example, failing learners can still go to colleges where help will be provided for those who require it, by writing individual programmes, to suit their needs, so they can pass.  Private providers will also be utilised so extra lessons can be given to those children who struggle, ensuring every pupil passes.

Notwithstanding that many of the sentiments expressed in the document seem honourable, I do not believe for one moment the 15-point plan will work, because its focus is on failure rather than authentic positive change. Educationally, it’s a “give-up” document which has intrinsically embedded into it, “let’s lower the standards of education so that our learners can eventually pass and get jobs”.

This whole approach to developing education in South Africa is only going to humiliate and dumb down our students, who up to now have experienced a pretty poor deal. An analogy can be made of someone winning the Comrades Marathon, but helpers on motorbikes carry him/her whenever the person tires. They cannot fail. 

Infrastructure and safety

The biggest problems the majority of schools are facing today are those of infrastructure and security. If these two issues could be resolved then authentic teaching and learning could happen and education is the most empowering force to bring about change. Without equity, there can be no equality. Without these two vital ingredients, no authentic democracy can exist. The equity gap is going to widen and the cycle of poverty, starvation and crime will continue. It is crucial that this cycle is broken.

Change or improvement?

There is much more involved in curriculum design than drawing up a list of proposed ideas. Questions need to be asked and critical discourse needs to happen, and in this way weaknesses could be avoided. For example, what are the issues related to OBE and its ultimate failure and why is nothing mentioned about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the impact it is going to have on the world, or the inherent dangers of technology?

Regrettably, I get a sense that instead of educational change all that is going to happen is new subjects will be added to an already congested timetable. This is nothing to do with change, which is more fundamental and transformative than the concept of improvement. The danger of improving the curriculum is that if it is flawed then improvement will only make it more defective. It is impossible to build a new curriculum on the notion of improvement. Change is all about turning things upside down and reinventing a curriculum that responds to communities, nations and the world. It’s not about “if it is not broken then you don’t fix it”, but more about how we go about genuine innovation.

Here are six basic implicit and explicit assumptions that should be taken into account before any form of authentic change can be sustained:

Assumption One: Change is a complex process

Change is not linear, and authentic change requires a shift in paradigms that often generates chaos and conflict. Inasmuch as change seems to be a relatively easy concept to implement, it is not, and many educationists have failed dismally because they have misunderstood the complexity of change within an educational context.

There are many nuances that must be thoroughly understood before implementation can take place. It is not something that can just be dropped into an educational setting and expected to automatically make a positive difference from the outset. Outcomes-Based Education, (OBE), the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) and the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) have all been unsuccessful because they failed to take cognisance of the concept of change.

Assumption Two: Quality teaching results in quality learning

In the ranking study referred to previously, most of the top-performing schools credited the teachers for their successful achievements. There is no doubt that quality teaching will result in academic success. Teachers who have a passion for teaching, and care about each learner, will have a positive effect on an entire school. The same is applicable to quality principals. Schools require teachers who are role models. Inasmuch as teaching can be thought of as a vocation, no longer can teachers be paid badly. The bottom line is, if you want quality it will come at a price.

However, in return, teachers must also conduct themselves professionally. To this end, teachers should have at least an honours degree in order to teach.

Although I am not a great advocate of standardised testing, maybe a little more rigour should be placed on the acceptance process, such as interviews by universities? At the risk of upsetting my popularity votes, maybe teachers, as with medical students, should complete a year of community service.

Assumption Three: If schools are to survive, change is mandatory

Unless the school system changes radically and becomes more relevant to the world of work, schools will remain institutions that would be more germane in museums. There is no doubt that schools will have to change or become relics of the past. Covid-19 has opened the eyes of the world and shown that without attending school, children have still been able to complete their syllabuses. It will be most interesting to observe the grades our 2020 matriculants achieve.

Teachers will have to adapt to this new world by changing their teaching styles and strategies. This includes incorporating technology, research and critical thinking and the integration of STREAM (science, technology, engineering, robotics, arts, and maths) into their teaching. Schools will have to become centres of excellence if they are to survive.

For authentic change to happen there has to be a paradigm shift from a traditional value system to an open value system. Parents are realising that an expensive education is no longer necessary in that there are many new choices open to them. Individual teaching with a tutor, homeschooling, group schools and online teaching are all available options that will cost a lot less than traditional schooling. It, therefore, looks like teachers will need to accept change if they want to retain their jobs.

Assumption Four: Universities control education

Universities set the benchmark for schools and therefore can control the curriculum and select the learners they want. However, research clearly indicates that many of the degrees offered at university are no longer relevant to the world of work. For example, StatsSA’s research has found that it is becoming increasingly more difficult for young people to secure a job even with a degree. Only a few students continue using their degrees after graduating, often switching to completely different types of jobs, several times in their life.

To this end, I am not aware of any detailed studies that have been undertaken recently to reveal what skills our children will require in five years’ time. This issue is of great significance in ensuring that universities don’t educate too many people in a specific field of study. Universities should rather educate students knowing there will be vacancies for their disciplines in the future.

My biggest concern about education is that the not-so-new rainbow is creating a chasm between the well-resourced schools and the poor schools that is only going to widen and deepen. It is about time we take a serious look at equity. After more than 20 years of democracy we have actually regressed at a rapid pace in terms of equity. Only when this problem is rectified will true democracy exist in South Africa and only then will we be recognised as a global country.

Having said this, while technology will be important for future schools, I don’t believe that it is the only panacea to solve the myriad issues facing education in South Africa today. Too much emphasis is placed on AI, AR, Zoom and social platforms. Research clearly indicates that there are real dangers directly associated with technology such as addiction, depression and invasion of privacy.

If a new curriculum is going to become the “new normal”, we cannot continue to pretend that there is equity when there is not. Much has been written on South African education and how poorly it rates compared to global standards but there is very little written on how such a vast discrepancy between black and white schooling came about. If 52% of our nation has left schools without a matric certificate then education in South Africa is the worst it has ever been and has totally failed the nation.

Assumption Five: The innate, ‘hidden curriculum’ political interference and the progeny of apartheid

The apartheid system is often used as a justification as to why education is so poor, even after 26 years of democracy. That being said, there is no doubt that the vast majority (mainly black people) of South Africans were subjected to an education administered by the National Party government which was highly influential over Bantu Education. Christian National Education (CNE) was deliberately structured to convey, through the “hidden curriculum”, implicit messages that black lives don’t matter and that black people were born inferior. A glance through any of the textbooks written at this time, be it Maths, English or Afrikaans, will bear testimony to this fact.

It is not surprising that many of the poor lost their dignity and belief in themselves. This still exists today in the form of “white privilege” whereby whites are perceived by the vast majority of citizens as the “chosen ones” purely because of their skin colour. This form of education affected black and white people in different ways. Black people generally came to believe that they were unintelligent second-class citizens, and white people believed they were far superior to black people. Without equity, no democracy can exist.

Inasmuch as the very core of democracy is based on the premise of free and fair elections, how can citizens from a disenfranchised community vote when they know so little of what is really happening in their country? This state of affairs can be attributed to the politicians who take great enjoyment from putting their noses where they don’t belong.

Democracy is not about power and control, it is about freedom. It should be inclusive, not exclusive. Furthermore, this situation is not helped by the fact that every attempt to improve education has been a monumental debacle. It is a fact that because CNE was designed by the Nationalist government and appeared to be effective and efficient, black people actually believed white education with its entire top-down structure was superior. Thus, when it came to the implementation of outcome-based education (OBE), the ANC (the government of the day) used these structures to implement OBE.

This clearly demonstrates the misguided perception that black people had about white education, and highlights the evils of apartheid. The National Party government was all about power, control, and politics and was highly manipulative.

Assumption Six: Poverty and crime

Poverty and crime can only be addressed through equal and fair education.

According to recent police statistics in South Africa, 100 women are raped every day and a woman is murdered every three hours. Professor Loren Landau of Wits University argues violence is now a norm and should have been addressed years ago. Break-ins, vandalism and the burning of poor, under-resourced schools are rife. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said that 1 577 schools had been vandalised during lockdown. She says with regards to poverty:

“Covid-19 is accelerating the high unemployment rate and bellies are rumbling from hunger. In Zulu there is a saying, Indlala ibanga ulaka, loosely translated, means hunger causes anger and violence. Our communities also have a drug and alcohol problem. Schools are particularly vulnerable now, more than ever, because anything of value is a target. Criminals see a weakness. In addition to equipping our schools we need to ensure there is adequate security.”

Determinants of change: Getting it right

As already alluded to in Assumption One, the implementation of any new idea is the most difficult task of the whole planning phase, in that good ideas may not in theory always translate to good ideas in practice. Therefore, below I have included four determinants of change that if implemented correctly, could ensure change is sustainable.

  1. Community

For change to be sustainable it has to have strong community support. Sometimes it may be difficult to identify a community; however, without this support, any innovation is doomed to fail. Engaging the community and developing a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride by ensuring that community values are embedded into the infrastructure of the schools would lend itself to developing communities that are more responsible and accountable. This in turn could lead to improved vigilance and heightened security in the schools, resulting in reduced vandalism and theft.

  1. Infrastructure

Without adequate infrastructure, schools simply cannot operate effectively. How can children be expected to learn having walked up to 10km to school? Considering too that added to this, many of the schools also have no ablutions, no textbooks, no technology, no lights or water and no security. Maybe Motshekga is correct when she says a professional company will be required to help with security. Notwithstanding, before a school is built or allows children or teachers onto the premises, it must be totally secure and safe.

  1. Evaluation

It always concerns me that there is no evaluation process in place before an innovation is introduced into the curriculum. Evaluation should always precede any form of intervention, thus reducing issues and problems, by identifying strengths and weaknesses at an early stage of development. Inasmuch as there are many forms of evaluation, I would select action research. This can be applied in a South African context and if implemented correctly can be most empowering.

  1. Contexts and change

Every assumption that has been made has been based on context. Context and change are inextricably linked. OBE failed for many reasons – the main one being context. We live in Africa. That means that we should not base everything we teach on a curriculum developed mainly in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Surely we know enough about South Africa to develop our own curriculum based on our unique context?

My final thought is, despite all that has happened recently in South Africa such as Covid-19, gross fraud and embezzlement, political and financial issues, power games between political parties or individuals and much more, if education was given a number one priority rating then everything else would fall into place. The biggest issue we all face today is equity. It is totally unacceptable to expect children to bridge this gap. The onus falls on the government to ensure this happens.

It’s okay to make mistakes because we learn from them; however, if we continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over at great financial costs, and use children as guinea pigs for experimentation, then it is clear we need to change those responsible for the chaos they have created. DM

Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.


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