South Africa’s illiteracy levels are well documented. For years, the damning statistics and devastating impact illiteracy will have on young people’s lives and our economy has made headlines. For years, these headlines have led to debate over whether there has been any progress. For years, some have expressed exasperation, while others have attempted to solve this education crisis, a crisis made substantially worse by Covid-19 and the national state of disaster. If children cannot read, any further education is a waste of their time and government resources.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recently convened the “2030 Reading Panel” to bring together South African leaders to ask: “What needs to change for us to ensure that all children learn to read by 2030?” The panel consists of a number of the brightest and most experienced minds in South Africa. Collectively they are working to comprehensively solve our education system’s greatest challenge: supporting our teachers to teach all of our children to read.
The Reading Panel background report states that “to improve the current trajectory of children’s literacy rates in South Africa, the education system needs to undergo drastic reforms or a state-wide system overhaul.”
The report makes four headline recommendations for a system-wide overhaul:
- Implement a universal standardised assessment of reading at primary school level;
- Move beyond slogans and symbolic campaigns to a costed and budgeted plan to fix the reading crisis in the country;
- Provide a standard minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (grades R-3); and
- Implement a university audit of pre-service teacher education programmes.
There are 13 further reports written by the members of the panel which make additional, compelling, and evidence-based recommendations to drive the system change. It would be silly to disagree with any of them, but, while they are all necessary, without rigorous accountability and robust support, they are unlikely to be sufficient to ensure all children can read for meaning by 2030.
In my view, the hallmark of an effective education system is one that keeps in mind its central purpose: teaching children and ensuring they all learn. An effective system enables its civil servants, leaders, and teachers to deliver on this mandate with strong support systems, balanced by rigorous accountability. Overdo accountability and you are likely to have a punitive and stifling system with unmotivated and ineffective public servants.
Lean too far in the opposite direction, and one risks producing a system that unwittingly fosters inefficiency and underperformance. A simple and effective balance in theory, but complex and difficult to deliver.
The reading panel rightly recommends the kind of support our nation’s teachers will need if they are to teach all of our children to read by 2030. Budgets instead of slogans, reading resources for all, and improved pre-service teacher training are all highly supportive measures which empower teachers who want to teach.
Each recommendation, of course, requires detailed and systematic planning, considerate of the varying contexts of our provincial departments and their schools, if they are to be implemented effectively. We risk undermining the collective effort if we do not get into the detail at every level of the system.
For example, ensuring every child has access to reading resources requires a detailed distribution and utilisation plan to avoid the far too many and tragic tales of entire libraries sitting in storerooms, gathering dust.
The proposed nationally standardised reading assessment, too, will require careful implementation planning that takes into consideration the support teachers will need if their learners are to have any chance of success. I am in favour of increasing system-wide accountability, but the assessment is likely to be ineffective without a nationally proposed approach for teaching reading, which in turn ought to be supported by a detailed and robust national plan for teacher training (pre- and in-service).
On the need for greater system-wide accountability, one of the panel members — Nangamso Mtsatse, CEO of Funda Wande — seems to agree. In her assessment of the education sector, she outlines what we are doing well and what we need to do better. Her final point on a list of system improvements is the current lack of meaningful and rigorous accountability within the system. She points out that “districts, schools, principals and teachers are not held accountable for learner performance.”
At the risk of overstating the obvious — this means that literally nobody in the government system is responsible for delivering quality education for all. In the absence of any form of accountability, how do we propose to make any of the recommendations the panel has outlined actually stick? Put more plainly — why should any departmental official, school principal or teacher (notwithstanding those who are passionately committed to what they would term a vocation and calling) care about the outcomes of a nationally standardised reading assessment, if they are not accountable for learner performance?
Nangamso Mtsatse goes on to recommend that we “incorporate the Integrated Quality Management System (IQMS) with learner performance”. I agree that integrating learner outcomes into performance management is the right and obvious thing to do (although this too will require careful planning and strategic stakeholder navigation to ensure effective implementation).
A strong performance management system, if implemented well, ought to ensure that where staff are willing but unable, they are provided with the right kind of support. Where unwilling, they are subject to a sufficiently rigorous performance management process to ensure underperformance is correctly and swiftly managed.
This is often an unpopular view, particularly in the public sector. However, our Constitution states that “everyone has the right to a basic education,” and in our oft well-meaning attempts to protect our teachers, we undermine the constitutional rights of our children.
We should be hugely encouraged by the convening of the panel, which will no doubt make strides towards addressing the education crisis our country faces. No doubt this task will require a concerted and collaborative effort, and others will be brought in to support the systemic overhaul being proposed. I am of the strong view that this must include the tackling of the underlying systemic issues — namely the absence of accountability and detailed, contextually conscious implementation planning.
Without doing this, we will be pouring water on sand, and our children, and country, will fail to flourish. DM