Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 8 November 2015

Fixing Basic Education: It’s about more than money

We spend more than three times as much as a country like Kenya per child, yet the quality of our basic education lags behind theirs. Unlike the higher education crisis, this is not a problem we can solve by simply throwing more money at it.

The recent #FeesMustFall student protests have thrust government’s funding of education into the spotlight. The President’s agreement to a 0% university fee increase for 2016 has left the Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, searching for an extra R2.7bn to make up the shortfall, and the Democratic Alliance (DA) has led the charge in offering him numerous good suggestions. But we can’t talk about solving the higher education crisis without, also, looking at basic education, because this is most often where the pathway to opportunity ends for many young South Africans.

Depending on which reports you read, South Africa ranks anywhere from “towards the lower end” to “the very bottom”, when it comes to the level of our basic education. Slightly more 70% of our children who should be in Grade 6 are literate. And when you look at numeracy, that number drops to 58%. In last year’s Annual National Assessments, less than half of Grade 9 learners scored more than 50% for home language literacy.

Unlike the higher education crisis, this is not a problem we can solve by simply throwing more money at it. Make no mistake, money is part of the issue. The roll-out of infrastructure, such as classrooms, electricity, and toilets at hundreds of rural schools still lags far behind their urban counterparts. All of this costs money. As do school feeding programmes, learner transport and textbooks. There will always be the need for a bigger budget.

But South Africa already spends around 20% of our total state expenditure – or 7% of our GDP – on basic education. This year, that amounted to more than R200 billion of the Budget. We spend more on basic education than we do on any other government function. And we spend more per child, than just about every country in Africa. So, what are we getting for our money? Unfortunately the answer is: Not an awful lot. We spend more than three times as much as a country like Kenya per child, yet the quality of our basic education lags behind theirs.

Every year, come matric results time, government finds all sorts of positives to crow about. But when you stop cherry-picking the points you want to flaunt, and consider the full story, the results paint a very bleak picture. For starters, the matric pass-rate only considers those children who sat for the exam. More than half the learners who had enrolled in Grade 1, 12 years earlier, would not have made it as far as the final exams. In 2014 there was much said about achieving a 76% matric pass rate. But that 76% only represented 37% of the children in that age cohort who started Grade 1, in 2003. And when you look at university exemption, this number goes down to just 14%.

Our current economic climate, and unemployment statistics do not bode well for those hitting the job market without matric. Finishing Grade 12 raises your job prospects somewhat, but the real leap in employability only comes with a post-high school qualification. It is absolutely crucial that we dramatically improve the chance every single child has of entering higher education. And when I say higher education, I’m not only referring to universities. We must find ways of streaming hundreds of thousands to children towards our many vocational training colleges, too.

So what must happen in our schools to make this possible? We often focus on the tangible, the material, because these are the things we can envisage fixing. We can fight for more budget, we can prevent wasteful spending, we can plan smarter. We can build more schools, build more classrooms, we can deliver more books, provide more meals. But increasing government spending to uplift poor schools will only help improve the standard of education up to a point. The biggest difference comes from something you can’t pay for.

Last year Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, co-authored a book called “How to fix South Africa’s schools”. In this book, he looked at 19 schools spread across all nine our provinces which he identified as “models of excellence”. These were all poor schools that somehow performed exceptionally well, despite being surrounded by poverty, gang violence, drug abuse, poor basic services and broken homes. Some of the schools that work were situated right alongside failed schools, drawing from the same communities, receiving the same funding and battling the same socio-economic challenges. So, what made them different?

In a nutshell. The calibre of the teachers and the principals. What set these schools apart and helped them achieve matric pass rates of between 85% and 100% is a group of people for whom the teaching profession is a noble job – a calling – and who passionately shoulder the massive responsibility that comes with shaping young lives.

Without exception, these 19 schools are headed up by principals who arrive early, stay late, involve themselves with every aspect of the school and the curriculum and drive their teachers to do more with less. Professor Jansen’s book is crammed with incredible anecdotes of real life heroes – teachers who often have to deal with massive classes, but still find ways of supporting the weakest learners, while pushing the strongest learners. These are people who seem to understand that education is the only hope children have of lifting themselves out of poverty, and that the buck stops with the teacher.

Unfortunately, they are a small minority, and Professor Jansen had to search for these pockets of excellence among our many, many failed schools. That they exist is proof of what is possible.

Of course, standing like a massive obstacle between our youth and quality teaching is the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), our biggest teachers’ union, which often operates more like an organised crime syndicate than a labour union. From jobs-for-cash scandals, and their boycotting of the Annual National Assessments, to their blocking of teacher’s performance assessments, and unprotected strikes, it has become clear that the interests of SADTU’s 245,000 members are placed well ahead of the interests of the 12 million children in our basic education system.

Government’s announcement last week, that it intends to move towards competency testing for teachers, is a massive step forward, although it remains to be seen how SADTU will respond to this. If ever government wanted to demonstrate that they recognise the critical importance of quality education in South Africa, then this is their opportunity to do so by standing firm against the union.

Once these competency tests are in place, we will begin to see which teachers can actually teach, and which teachers are failing our children. Teaching cannot be seen as just another civil service job where disinterest and incompetence go unnoticed until retirement. There is simply too much at stake. It is critical that we only employ only those who can, and want to teach, and that we then hold them to account.

The teachers mentioned in Professor Jansen’s book should be our benchmark; this is the standard we should demand from the people we entrust to set our children on their life journey. As Verna Jeremiah, the principal of Heatherdal Secondary School in the Free State says, in Professor Jansen’s book:

It’s an incredible task to give those students self-confidence, and to take them on a journey of ambition so that they believe that they can do it, that life doesn’t just end beyond Heatherdale’s fences.” DM