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Second Transition, education chapter: success will be a miracle

A passionate maths teacher in a country where those skills are in desperate short supply, Robyn Clark teaches at a Sekolo sa Borokgo, a school for formerly disadvantaged children. She carving out a niche for herself as an expert on the use of technology and mobile technology in the classroom and is especially interested in the accessibility of quality Maths education. She is currently studying towards her MSc in mathematics education at the University of Witwatersrand.

As the country prepares for the ANC’s National Policy Conference, a series of documents – or progress reports, if you will – have been issued on various areas of government performance. I took serious issue with the education handout.

Riddle me this: What do the Second Transition and the Second Coming have in common? For starters, not everyone is a believer. Secondly, even the believers acknowledge that if either one were pulled off successfully, it would be a miracle.

Yet later this month, over 3,500 delegates will gather to attend the ANC National Policy conference. In preparation, the ANC has released a series of documents intended to stimulate discussion around what the ANC has achieved over the last 18 years in South Africa, and what it should further achieve in the future. A stock-take, if you will. The aim is, of course, to stimulate discussions in the policy process, which will in turn help with plan governance in the country in the following years. 

As an educator, my interest was naturally drawn immediately to the section on Basic Education in the Health and Education Policy Discussion Document. And what I saw was disquieting. Certainly there were some good ideas. But the document is peppered with unreachable ideals. And perhaps the most glaringly obvious is what has not been said.

First, the good news: improvements have been made in the education system over the last 16 years. First and foremost, all children in South Africa are entitled to an education (progress!) In practice, however, the mere right to education isn’t enough: there have been recent cases where the department of education has been taken to court for non-delivery of education, for example by not providing the promised textbooks in Limpopo. So no, the right alone is not enough. But let’s give it its due: at least now, where children are denied an education, they have a legal right to fight it.

A far bigger concern was the number of glaring inconsistencies in the document.

Firstly, the document states: “Government set itself a target of ensuring that 60% of grade 3, 6 and 9 learners must function at an ‘acceptable levels’ in Literacy and Numeracy in 2014.” 

Oh dearie, dearie me. A goal that is both vague and sad. What are these “acceptable levels”? They are certainly not defined in the document. If we are to take the current “acceptable level” of passing in Matric, we see that it is 30%. Really? According to this document, we can happily accept 40% of our children attaining less than a 30% achievement level. 

Do we even need to analyse this further? Should we be happy that our government is setting such poor standards for itself, and for our learners? Should we really be glad to enforce mediocrity and complacency as praiseworthy characteristics? What a pitiable lack of faith in our learners’ potential.

The second problematic statement: “The ANC advocates the rational use of ICT in our schools, FET colleges, universities, clinics, hospitals, and other facilities, as this is demanded of us during this computer or digital age.”

Brilliant! The ANC want us to use technology in schools, but has unfortunately not stated how this should happen. In many cases, the only computers a school has are either stolen or are locked away to ensure that they are not. In many schools, the closest learners come to a piece of technology is in using a cellphone. Recently, however, the National Association of School Governing Bodies announced that they would like to see the complete ban of cell phones from all schools in South Africa. 


Here’s why it’s a blunder: there are successful ways where cell phones could be used as a tool for learning, with a majority of today’s cell phones being able to access the internet or Mxit, where textbooks and online-tutors are freely available. Plus South Africa has an exceptionally high rate of cellphone penetration; it’s one of the countries with more cellphones than people, and an unusually high level of inter-generational cellphone literacy. (Cue contrasting images of confused parents trying to assist children with homework research on a PC or Mac.) 

There’s no need for the NASGB to call for this ban. The problem is not that there are cellphones; it is that there is little knowledge of how to use them as a learning tool. 

A third fly in the ointment – the document states: “The new curriculum must be accompanied with skills development of teachers.”

Again, a great idea in theory. But not so much in practice. 

Two personal experiences dictate my response. The first is that I have personally given up free time to attend a CAPS training session which was held by the department of education. The training session may have been useful, if I were not able to read. 

The second is how I have perceived the secondary experiences around SADTU. Many of the learners in my class catch a taxi to school, and I have heard stories of intimidation and anger during the strikes. Many SADTU members simply will not agree to being trained outside of official school hours. This is a challenge, because if teachers are trained within school time, learners lose out. Skills development and professional development of teachers is vital, yet seems like an unobtainable ideal in this situation. Very few teachers have taken their professional development into their own hands. And, while many teachers continue to be worked over capacity in high-stress environments, this is unlikely to change.

So much for what was said. Here’s what went unsaid:

  • The role and impact of unions

SADTU is a major role player in South African Education and has become a bully. How should it be dealt with constructively?

  • Common problems in South African communities 

Child-headed households, absent parents, HIV and poor eyesight. 

  • Learners walking very far to school

Many learners wake up before 5am, and get home after dark. A transport system needs to be set into place. 

  • Performance requirements for teachers and principals

This may curb teacher and management absenteeism in schools. There is a vague mention of a strategy for improving accountability, but this seems to be in its infancy. 18 years into democracy, this strategy should have been fully developed.

  • School sanitation and access to water

Mention is made of rebuilding “mud hut schools”, but there is no mention of providing proper sanitation and running water to many of the schools which do not have this basic need. 

  • School improvement plans

Many schools need a complete overhaul. This is where a school improvement plan would work to set out steps for improvement. 

  • Parental involvement

There is no mention of parental involvement. Parental involvement, in many cases, needs to be encouraged, as this is a novel practice to many. 

These are just a handful of the real issues missing from the document’s list of proud evaluations, and yet they are enough to add a healthy dose of cynicism to one’s reading of the document’s conclusion. Sure enough, the document wraps up with comfy reassurance that everything is absolutely fine in both the education and health sectors: 

“The Education and Health sectors are satisfied with the progress being made in the implementation of resolutions, policies and programs in the ANC government.”

And then, almost as an afterthought, the document goes on to state that new policies are still needed to further the progress. Suitably vague and self-congratulatory, yes. But the cherry on top? Yet another sub-committee will be formed the resolution out. With no end in sight. 

No, the document is not entirely void of original or productive ideas. But ideas and policies are worth nothing if there is no equivalent action in the places that need it most. These ideas should not be vague, overarching or bureaucratic. They should provide real and tangible solutions to the problems that we face.

Would it be insensitive of me to contrast today’s education system to the one that precipitated the events of 16 June 1976? Are we begging for another disaster to force the government to realise that our education system is still disadvantaging the youth of today? In 1976, students protested against the disastrous, yet well implemented, policy of learning in Afrikaans. Today, there are some great policies and ideals which are in the best interests of learners, but poor implementation and leadership in the education sphere means that learning is chronically inhibited. 

Education is arguably the essential foundation upon which society is built. Fix it and many other pieces of the South African conundrum will fall into place. Yet change is a long and arduous process, and we still have a long way to go before we can say that we have a fully functioning education system. DM


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