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Hierarchy – the root of South Africa’s education deficit


Mduduzi Mbiza is a Pretoria-born writer.

The hierarchical structure of education in the country is holding us back. The problem with hierarchy is that the person you report to may not report what you told them to the person above them. This is how corruption arises. Lack of accountability is also a consequence of a hierarchical structure because if one level decides to do as they please, the whole structure faces a threat of collapse.

In recent years, so much has been said about the education deficit in South Africa. However, less has been said about how to improve it. Hierarchy is the problem that that lies behind the education deficit.

The Department of Education (DBE) still operates on a top-down structure, with the minster at the top and the learners at the bottom. Between these two is a group of people making decisions that mostly affect the learners, and the blame always go straight to the minister.

In 2016 there were 12,342,213 learners, 381,394 educators and 23,719 public schools. When combined together, learners and educators equalled 12,723 607, just above the population of Guinea and South Sudan. However, we must keep in mind that the DBE is not a country and we should stop treating it like one.

Angie Motshekga is the founder of this department – she was appointed minister in 2009, the same year the department was formed. She holds both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in educational science from the University of the Witwatersrand. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts .degree in education from the University of the North and a Higher Diploma in education. With all these qualifications, one would expect the education System in South Africa to be one of the best, at least in Africa. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that; even Robert Mugabe, with seven academic degrees knows better.

In 2017, the matric pass rate in Eastern Cape was the lowest at 65.0%. Free State was the highest at 86.1%, followed by Gauteng at 85.1%.

In my view, the challenge with this kind of structure in our education system is achieving efficiency. It has been 9 years since the DBE was established and we haven’t seen much productivity from the department as a whole. Instead what we see is a group of provincial departments operating in isolation from each other, Gauteng usually being the most effective and innovative.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 2015) is a good place to start. TIMSS is an assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth grade and eighth grade learners around the world. It was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of educational Achievement (IEA).

For the TIMSS Numeracy 2015 in South Africa, the Human Sciences Research Council conducted the study in 2014 at 297 schools with 10,932 learners. This was the first time South Africa participated at the Grade 5 level.

The report revealed that, in Limpopo, 90% of learners are in schools which provide a free lunch. On the other hand 17% of learners in Limpopo are in schools that have a library.

This library issue is certainly not a lack of funds, the problem seems to be the management of funds. For instance, in Gauteng 73% of learners are in schools which provide free lunch, while 82% of learners are in schools which have a library. So, in Limpopo it’s okay to only feed a learner’s stomach. Why aren’t they equipping their schools with libraries to feed their brains too?

The hierarchical structure is not helping the DBE at all. We need to have these departments operating in collaboration, where all MECs and the minister will sit down and analyse each province’s performance, management and budget.

The department needs to move away from this structure; though it seems to work well in the corporate world, it doesn’t work in the education system. The communication across different departments tends to be less effective. A more collaborative structure is needed. The reason we need a sense of collaboration is that, when one province performs badly, it affects the national department, it even overshadows the good performance of other provinces.

For as long as we run these departments as if we are in a classroom with Free State being the brightest learner for the year, while Gauteng is the creative learner and Limpopo being the poor and under-performing learner, we are very far from having a system that will compete on a continental, let alone a global level.

One of the reasons we are failing to improve the system is that, when we placed learners at the end of the system, we placed the parents even further.

The TIMSS 2015 study also revealed that it’s only in independent schools where the percentage of parents who reported engaging in reading books with the learners exceeds 50%. I mentioned in my previous article titled The Issues with South Africa’s Education System and also in my research titled Education in Economic Development: South Africa, that the department has to build a system that will create home-based programmes that parents can utilise in order to encourage a reading culture. Libraries are not enough if learners spend most of their time at home (especially when libraries are this scarce). Parents need to be more involved, and the department needs to reach out to them.

In Finland, parents of newborn babies are given three books, one for each parent, and a baby book for the child, as part of the “maternity package”. Parents are not only seen as parents, they are also seen as teachers.

The problem with hierarchy is that the person you report to may not report what you told them to the person above them. This is how corruption arises. Lack of accountability is also a consequence of a hierarchical structure because if one level decides to do as they please (which they often do) the whole structure faces a threat of collapse.

Despite having 381,394 teachers in the department, there was still a shortage. The department had 5,000 unqualified or under-qualified teachers. Elijah Mhlanga confirmed these figures in August 2017. This is a serious problem, because eliminating these teachers would in fact create a huge gap, especially in provinces like KZN. When teachers fail to cover the whole curriculum due to absenteeism, imagine what would happen if some 5,000 teachers were to be removed. Teachers play a very important role in a learner’s future and to some extent their career. In addition, Mhlanga added that the 5,000 teachers earned the same salary as the qualified ones.

Why do I consider this as a hierarchical problem? Because not every province experienced this shortage, especially in high numbers. The challenge is not that there are no students in the field of education in these other provinces, the challenge is that they often move to other provinces after graduating, and this is due to the fact that some provinces have better benefits and are well-resourced and equipped with better infrastructure.

We won’t be able to eradicate the education deficit until we deal with the issue of power. Our provincial departments will always seek to prove a point about their department and the province they operate in. DM

Mduduzi Mbiza is a Pretoria-born entrepreneur, researcher, consultant and speaker


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