Defend Truth


Compulsory history: The Blow that Broke our Education System?


Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. She has been involved in various education-related projects, including some sessional lecturing and delivering professional development programmes.

Our education system is under so much pressure. How does adding another burden help? If history is made compulsory until matric, we will be channelling precious time, energy, money and resources to yet another priority. Why are we so afraid of focusing on the basics – reading, writing and maths. Why do we keep wanting to add more burdens to our education system?


Matrics have to take two languages until their matric year. This has not improved the functional literacy of our youth. Matrics also have to take maths or maths literacy to matric. I’m not convinced that this has improved the mathematical skills of the general population. In fact, many kids have to take out calculators to work out what percentage they got for a test out of 50 marks. Life orientation is also compulsory until matric, but I don’t see many more people making better or wiser choices. Thus far, the track record isn’t great.

Our education system is under so much pressure. How does adding another burden help? If history is made compulsory to matric, we will be channelling precious time, energy, money and resources to yet another priority. Why are we so afraid of focusing on the basics – reading, writing and maths. Why do we keep wanting to add more burdens to our education system?

I agree with some of the findings of the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) report that came out on 31 May 2018. I’m not going to deal with what I agree with right now, since I only have two hours to type this up because – yes – I’m currently teaching and have to prepare for my lessons for tomorrow and marks tons of assessments. I will deal with the key recommendation that history should be made compulsory from 2023 onwards. I want to point out that this is a phenomenally bad idea for South Africa right now.

My main issue around the recommendation that we make history compulsory is that history is offered as a solution to provide learners with skills that our entire basic education system should be geared towards removing anyway. Consider this paragraph which appears to be taken from the executive summary of the report. I got this information from a photograph from @Sagovnews on Twitter, so I do stand to be corrected – but it seemed very legitimate.

The aims and objectives of history education at schools should be to enhance everyday life skills such as vocabulary, reference techniques, comprehension, translation, communication, extrapolation, and judgement. As educators/ teachers, our main aim is to teach learners, through their life experiences, how to use intellectual and social skills to become more effective learners and responsible citizens. Therefore, in terms of teaching the history of Ideas or Philosophy of history as envisaged in the CAPS school history syllabus, both educators and learners need to have the literary skills to present findings in elegant prose; and the ability to formulate clear and logical arguments. Methodical and conceptual skills include ability to weigh evidence judiciously and to synthesise voluminous historical evidence.”

Good history teaching does do much of what is envisaged in the above quote. But history taught poorly just makes children hate school, and learning, and history in general. And we need to face the fact that most subjects, not just history, are taught poorly in schools across South Africa. We are struggling to find, train and professionally develop teachers who can effectively teach basic reading and writing. The majority of our Grade 4s are functionally illiterate. But somehow, somewhere, we will find many amazing history teachers for the FET phase (Grades 10-12) who embody all the skills mentioned above and are willing to take a government teacher’s salary.

Ha ha.

The report on the matric 2017 exams stated that many matric candidates who wrote the history exams struggled to write coherent paragraphs. The same report on the matric exam stated that many learners wrote essays without any argument, or with no introductions and conclusions. This is a clear indication that taking history to matric does not guarantee the development of “literary skills” in order to “present findings in elegant prose”. Forcing everybody to take it is not going to imbue our nation with the desired skills mentioned above.

There seems to be an idea that by prioritising the training of history teachers in the next five years, we will be able to meet the shortfall of history teachers needed in 2023. We might fill the posts, but we can’t guarantee the quality. The Initial Teacher Education Research Project found significant problems with B.Ed degrees from different institutions, ranging from courses of questionable quality to admission of students who did not meet basic university entrance requirements. Unfortunately, possessing a B.Ed degree does not guarantee content knowledge or teaching ability. Pushing more people through the B.Ed degrees might ensure more qualified history teachers, but it doesn’t ensure a higher number of competent history teachers.

I have sat in a classroom and observed a final year student teacher, who majored in history for her B.Ed, teach an entire class that the 1913 Natives Land Act and the 1950 Group Areas Act were the same peace of legislation. She passed. I watched another final year history student do little beyond read from the textbook and speak at his class for his final practical. He also passed. Basically, it’s really hard to fail your practical. Until our education degrees become more rigorous, and sound content knowledge is considered essential for a pass, I do not put much trust in the training of future history teachers. The MTT apparently does.

The education campuses are also not working with top students with “well-developed methodical and conceptual skills”. Many students are struggling to understand basic readings, or, to be perfectly frank, struggle to pitch up on time for class after lunch. It is disheartening talking to a class of 20 students, and knowing that the other 150 will trickle in over the next half an hour. We cannot expect people to teach skills that they do not possess in reality, and which universities do not have the time or resources to instil consistently.

Then there is Funza Lushaka. I must say that I have come across quite a few people who were able to study thanks to this bursary scheme and I think it worthwhile. I agree that this scheme should be extended to include history education students. But I don’t think it should only be for education degrees. Extend it to people who want to study straight BA degrees, with a major in history. They can do their Post-Graduate Diploma in Education (PGCE) afterwards. It’s the same length of time as a B.Ed degree. Unfortunately, I’ve also come across some anecdotal evidence that the bursary scheme is failing to place graduate students in jobs on time. I mentored a teacher who was a bursary recipient. At the start of the school year she was still not placed and eventually found her own work. This was a few years ago, and maybe things have changed. I hope so.

Last, let me add that teaching history well, and being committed to the learners in our care, is not easy. I often walk into the staffroom and see teachers leisurely sitting drinking their tea, reading the newspaper, or scrolling through social media. This is hardly ever a history teacher. There is always marking, lots and lots of marking. There is always new content that needs to be researched, or new sources to find, or what feels like thousands of tests to set. Giving feedback to learners individually on their assessments so that they can improve their writing skills is vital, but time consuming. Even marking without any feedback takes up a lot of time (if you are demanding rigorous answers from your learners). Being a good and committed history teacher in a government school where many kids are still developing basic functional literacy (even in matric) is demanding and exhausting.

Much as I love history, I cannot be glad that the MTT recommended it be made compulsory. History is portrayed as a remedy for the lack of adequate literacy skills and cognitive development and in our education system. History could remedy this, if we have committed and excellent teachers who possess the necessary skills they are expected to teach. But we don’t. And we are not going to get more fabulous history teachers by prioritising history majors in B.Ed degrees, because many training programmes are riddled with problems and produce graduates of questionable quality.

By making history compulsory in the FET phase we are continuing the legacy of intervening in our youth’s education in the final years, rather than focusing on the formative years. First get basic literacy right. Then get history right in the early grades. Then we can talk about extending it to the final years. DM


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