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Our education system is in the ICU with 10 ailments – it needs oxygen and it needs a vaccine


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

With school management teams returning this week and with the wisdom of 2020 available to us, we can look back on the education year that was, on our education system, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is said that Covid-19 has revealed the weaknesses of our education system. It is a system in the ICU, on oxygen, struggling to breathe. The lockdown gave me the opportunity to have a serious in-depth look at our education system. I have diagnosed 10 ailments:

  1. For any education system to function effectively the basic support must be in place. That is why it concerns me that some schools still do not have basic toilet facilities, safe classrooms and running water available. I ask myself how these children and teachers must wash their hands. Working internet connections so that online classes can take place, are also apparently too much to ask for.
  2. Communication between the Basic Education Department and its role players is still defective. Urgent notices do not reach everyone. It leads to confusion and creates a fertile breeding ground for misinformation while it is ammunition in the hands of those who are focused on causing panic. Pamphlets in 11 languages would be more effective than television broadcasts.
  3. The pandemic has revealed that our current curriculum has not kept up with the rapid change. It is a curriculum which provides little stimulation, which suppresses innovation, promotes servitude and ignores entrepreneurship. The Chinese proverb that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish, still holds true. A nation which stands in queues daily for handouts is indicative of a curriculum which has failed the pupils of this country.
  4. Our school system is too examination driven. Successful countries like Finland have children write only one examination: the matric exam. South African children are permanently stressed due to a continuous rush to write assessment tasks, tests and examinations. There is little time to enjoy school. The excessive emphasis on the matric exam and the ecstasy over the apparent success of matrics is a smokescreen to hide the real defects in the system. Like all of us who have to comply with more than one KPA, matric results cannot be the only assessment method by which the minister of education is judged. If you really want to know if education in South Africa is healthy, you must look at the levels of literacy and numeracy. And we all know what that looks like.
  5. Trade unions will have to redefine their role in our country’s education setup. After 26 years the relationship between labour unions and the minister is still an arm-wrestling competition to see who is really in charge of education. It is Sadtu especially which must change its attitude. This union has smart leaders, but their voices are seldom heard. The union’s only goal can no longer be only to fight for higher salaries. There are many facets of education to which a union can (and should) make a constructive contribution. Why are unions, for example, so quiet about schools which still do not have running water or toilets? An African proverb says: when two elephants fight, the grass suffers most. It is the children who suffer most from this continuous tug-of-war. It is time for a new approach where everyone cooperates without continuously doubting each other’s bona fides. For the sake of the child.
  6. Following from point 5 above is the attitude of some teachers. Let me make it clear: the majority of teachers are hardworking and loyal to their calling. I should know. For many years I was a teacher and school principal. Together my wife and I have 60 years’ experience of teaching in underprivileged schools. My career as circuit manager opened my eyes to the good work done in many schools; some poor and others wealthier. It also allowed me to work in the poorest schools. I saw how some teachers are horribly derelict towards their duty and how common teacher absenteeism is. This attitude is often condoned by the union instead of being addressed. It is time that these teachers are called to account for their actions. Even better: get rid of them! They place other teachers in a poor light and must be replaced by teachers who want to work.
  7. Covid-19 has revealed that we have an ageing teaching force. In 2004 the average age of teachers was 42. Now it is 47. We are losing many teachers to Covid-19. This offers the opportunity for younger people to access the profession. We are simply not appointing enough young teachers. Many recent education graduates seek work overseas because they are not appointed locally. It does not make sense to use tax money to train teachers so that they can go and teach in China and Korea. We need them here. Under the leadership of experienced colleagues, it is perhaps just the oxygen that is needed.
  8. The education system is still too bureaucratic in nature. This approach extends from national to provincial and regional level. It is even a problem in schools. That is why I am a proponent that principals, just like any other senior manager, should be appointed for a term of five years, whereafter they have to apply again. This will keep principals on their toes and force them to be more transparent. Those who are not successful must be replaced after five years. One highlight is that the minister of education is consulting with all role players.
  9. Most schools are too dependent on the government. Initiative is lacking. Principals are hesitant to take independent decisions and prefer to wait for officials to dictate the pace. In many former Model C schools, parents play an important role in support of the school. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of parents in poorer communities, while these are the schools that really need it more. The pandemic is the ideal opportunity for parents to ensure that pupils and teachers function in a safe environment. Fundraising to buy the necessary protective equipment and the regular deep cleaning of classrooms are a few projects where parents can lighten the load of teachers. Solutions do not always require money. Innovative action, no matter how small, might just be the right vaccine for a school which is struggling to breathe.
  10. The pandemic has once again emphasised that education in South Africa must be transformed. Transformation is not a single act by a few individuals of colour. It is a new way of life in line with the new South African context. Our national sports teams, our churches, cultural organisations, even the soap operas; everything carries the signature of the new South African context. School principals and governing bodies must honestly respond to the following questions: Did you co-opt business leaders who can help you with financial planning? Are your staff, governing body and student body representative of the diverse South African society? How many women serve in the management team? Does your school make provision for soccer or is it still just rugby and netball? No environment in South Africa has not been affected by change. Why should schools be the exception? Labour unions and the education department are equally guilty because they are silent or condone this.

Waiting for a vaccine

One thing is certain: the future will (and must) look different. The positive side of the pandemic is that it has speeded up this change. It forces us to find a cure for our education woes. Actually, they have been visible for a long time. As a nation we ignored the symptoms and hoped that they would heal by themselves. Now education has landed in the intensive care unit. Waiting for a vaccine.

This vaccine does not have to be obtained from abroad. It is already here.

Every community has the leadership and skills to fix the education system in its midst. We are just too blind to see it. It is the task of all of us to develop these skills to a level where every school is able to supply the oxygen for which each teacher and learner longs.

So that education in South Africa can breathe again. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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