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Call it what it is — the SA education system is in complete ruins

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Professor Mark Tomlinson is co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. These are his personal views.

Reforming the education system is a bit like providing cough syrup for severe Covid-19. Hope, I am afraid, will not come from reform. We will only find it in total and complete system transformation.

As the hottest year in history draws to a close, we are faced with a world both literally and figuratively on fire. Months of fires across Canada, Greece and Siberia. We began 2023 with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are ending it with a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Almost forgotten is the ongoing civil war in Sudan.

Finding hope, finding solace in the face of this is increasingly difficult. One option is of course the ostrich approach. Stop reading the news and hunker down in our own little bubble. Another is to face it head-on. Acknowledge the horror. Admit the destruction.

Recently, I stumbled upon “The Great Humbling” a podcast that poses the question “What if our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?” The podcast, which began in the first year of the pandemic, is a series of long conversations between Ed Gillespie and Dougald Hine.

Ed Gillespie is a self-confessed “recovering sustainability expert” while Dougald Hine is an author, editor and social entrepreneur. Part of the task of these conversations — elaborated further in Hine’s book “At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics and All the Other Emergencies” — is to face the truth that things as we know it are in ruins.

And for Gillespie and Hine, while this perhaps does not mean the end of the world, it certainly means the end of the world as we know it. But as they are at pains to point out, once we acknowledge that things are in ruins, it is from those very ruins that we can rebuild. It is from the ruins that something new can emerge.

The concept of what remains in the ruins got me thinking about the South African education system.

Literacy let-down

In June this year we discovered that in 2021, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), 81% of Grade 4 children in South Africa are unable to read for meaning. When the same test was administered in 2016, 78% of Grade 4 children in SA could not read for meaning. I have written about this, and have been ruminating about it for months.

At face value the results are appalling. Digging a little deeper they feel catastrophic.

Learning is progressive and builds on what comes before. Early deficits left unremedied have lifelong consequences. In theory, where there is a deficit, intensive remediation is possible and children not able to read for meaning at the end of Grade 4 can be helped to course correct.

But in the vast majority of South African schools, there is no remediation. There is no course correction. In fact, in most cases the further children go through school the worse the teaching will become.

For example, in many high schools in South Africa, there is not a single maths teacher, while first-year students studying education across three universities scored only 52% on a primary school maths test (rising to 54% at the end of their degree).

Higher education gaps

We also know that our throughput rates to university are appalling. According to Nic Spaull, of 100 learners that start school, approximately 50-60 will make it to matric, 40-50 will pass matric, 14 will qualify to go to university, and only six will get an undergraduate degree within six years.

The 14% who qualify to go to university is a remarkably similar number to the 19% of South African children who are able to read for meaning at the end of Grade 4.

It would not be hyperbolic to state that for most South African children the possibility of a meaningful education is, for all intents and purposes, over by the end of Grade 4.

Phoenix beneath the ashes?

These are the ruins of our education system. Let us call it what it is. The South African education system is in ruins. Centuries of colonisation and apartheid ensured this ruination. And I would contend that a singular lack of imagination and vision since 1994 has ensured we have remained mostly stagnant.

But what might lie in these ruins? What might we find to re-imagine something new? The first mistake, I would suggest, is a focus on reform.

In February 2022, former deputy president Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka launched the inaugural 2030 Reading Panel report. The aim of the panel is to ensure that by 2030 all children in South Africa will be able to read for meaning by age 10. One of the calls that the panel made was for “fundamental reforms”.

But given where we are educationally, reforming the system is a bit like providing cough syrup for severe Covid-19, or believing that a daily dose of insulin will cure diabetes. We are highly adept at “admiring the problem” and treating the symptoms. Hope, I am afraid, will not come from reform. We will only find it in total and complete system transformation.

What might this look like? Firstly, an acknowledgement of what we do have. South African schools provide essential childcare, serve a vital child protection role, and are instrumental in the feeding of millions of South African children.

Despite training limitations, we have thousands of South African teachers who are highly motivated and doing their level best in incredibly difficult circumstances.

And despite the gothic failings of so many in Cabinet and in our ruling party, provincial departments of education across the country (and nationally) are staffed by many brilliant and highly motivated people. Add to this is an infrastructure and distribution system unrivalled outside of the health system and you have a great deal to build from.

Secondly, we need to own up to the ruins of our education system. This may feel too much to bear. But facing it is imperative.

Thirdly, we need an early learning system — from preschools through primary school — that has as its primary goal socio-emotional learning. It is through play and engagement with peers that we learn to read the minds of peers; problem solve; to regulate our emotions; learn about the give and take of human connection; learn to attend; deal with the unexpected; resolve conflict; and learn the many different types of empathy and care for others.

Tech injections

Combined with this, we need to fully embrace artificial intelligence (AI) in our education system. Go all in. Everywhere. AI has already begun to re-shape education, and in the next few years is likely to entirely up-end what is taught and how it is taught.

Already we have South African innovations such as Trackosaurus that help teachers track the developmental progress of individual children in their class. Currently, with class sizes of over 50 in many places, any hope of individualised focus is a pipe dream. No teacher can cope with or personalise teaching for 50 children. We are deluding ourselves to imagine it is even remotely possible. Personalised AI tutors using tablets however, do exactly this by responding at the level of the child’s unique ability.

Finally, where are we in terms of helping our children reconnect to nature, to think about how climate breakdown will disrupt food systems? About growing food for self-sufficiency? About building a care economy?

Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and by 2018 its general education system was the best in Europe. How was this possible? Massive digital investment. Re-training of teachers. Cancelling homework. A focus on learning more in less time.

Of course, South Africa is not Estonia and Estonia’s solutions are not ours. But the lesson from Estonia? Vision, transformation, and revolutionary thinking outside of the box. But perhaps most importantly, an unashamed single-minded focus on — and investment in — children and their futures.

As long as we continue to focus much of our energy on Band-Aid solutions (reforms) such as getting outdated textbooks to teachers battling to cope, we will be having the same conversation in five and 10 years’ time.

I have often thought that perhaps what we need to do is to tear it all down and start again. But as I have tried to argue here, although things are in ruins, there are new ways of working and being to be found lying in the ruins, to be picked up, to create anew.

But the build has to be radical, it has to be visionary, and it will require boundless courage from leaders and us all. DM

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  • Robert Mckay says:

    All you need is willing teachers, willing students and a supportive community. But tall poppy syndrome is pervasive. I was told to go home by our Union Rep because I was putting in extra time to set up hands on experiments for my 1st to 6th grade classes…and that was when I worked in California. I ignored them. But I had that privilege. My sense it is different in some schools in SA.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The SA education system is a crime against humanity.

  • Myles Thies says:

    A tough but honest reflection of the state of our education system. Working in the higher education in SA one experiences many of the same outcomes with universities attempting for decades to try and address the low capability of learners which has a litany of negative consequences beyond just teaching and learning. However, without discounting the major challenges SA has in education, many countries around the world are facing similar challenges with declining literacy rates, lowered completion and school graduate levels amongst a host of other issues. And these are in countries historically cited as having had some of the best education systems in the world like the US, UK and many Asian nations. The reasons for this are many with (ironically) technology, Covid and others playing a part. So I think this means that, yes, SA undoubtedly needs to scrap and rebuild, it has to do so in a way that is potentially even more radical that just reaching the capability of Estonia etc. Education has to be rebuilt to cater for the needs of learning well beyond today even. I have no doubt that those skills and know-how exist in SA and there are lessons across the globe already to learn from but it will take massive effort, motivation and, most critically, political will at the highest levels to initiate. I don’t see that coming from this administration and its not a major aspect of any other political statements from opposition from my view.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Even Cyril thinks it’s a mess and needs consultation with teachers! Duh! You know, with a prez this insightful (after 30 years of misrule) small wonder we have a dysfunctional education system.

  • Jan Van Zyl says:

    It’s mind-boggling to look at the massive amounts of homework children nowadays need to complete each day. It is as if they’re trying to correct the problem in the system by doubling down on the failures. Children in grade 4, 5 etc. cannot play, socialize and just be children,with the result that they turn to social media as a quick but insufficient remedy in order to help with their normal needs of interaction. Each time the system fail, the response is to increase the amount of homework with the hope that it would cure the problem.

    • Andrew R says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. The CAPS curriculum is incredibly prescriptive, and schools must provide a report twice per term, indicating the percentage of curriculum covered. The DBE only cares about those percentages, but in the long term, those percentages mean nothing. I can guarantee that many of those submissions are accurate or just plain false, because of the pressure from district and provincial level to complete a certain percentage of the curriculum. And with it now being official policy that children can be given up to 5% in 3 subjects, AND then condone their Maths marks, simply to progress them to the next grade, and you have a ticking timebomb that the government is happy to keep, because it provides them with voting chattle.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    In stark contrast to what Cyril the idiot in chief and the spineless maintains and pontificates ie blame it on colonial education instead of tackling the real issues that they are 100% responsible for, like everything else has been been degraded or destroyed in this country. This highly hypocritical, immoral, sleazy and treacherous individual’s true colours are coming out ie racist to the core, anti West for anything and everything, a master of lies and misinformation and a wannabe dictator like his beloved and idolised and evil Putin thug, Maduro from Venezuela, Raisi from Iran etc. etc. How he and his hideous party would love to impose the same system (no dissent, tow the party line or else and steal the country blind which they already have accomplished) and obliterate any dissent and exposure of their serious crimes, massive incompetence and pandemic corruption – do away with independent media, judiciary, NGOs etc. It is very obvious what needs to be done in resolving the education mess but whilst we have these useless morons in government, the blame game will continue with the can being kicked down the road. Another generation abandoned and lost – brought to you with compliments of the disgusting anc!

    • John Gosling says:

      Cyril the spinless has just announced that he wants the education system de-colonialized. Now there’s a solution to the education problem!

  • Y Cato says:

    An insightful article, but I believe Prof. Tomlinson completely underestimates the complexities of implementing tablet based AI solutions in South African schools. It’s a military truism that while amateurs talk strategy; professionals attend to logistics. Consider acquiring the tablets without massive corruption; consider just keeping them charged, unfrozen, unbroken, unstolen, etc., etc. That’s before considering whether even with excellent logistics, Tomlinson’s proposed solution could be effective. As a retired educator I’ve seen many such initiatives fail, only to be replaced by other (more expensive) initiatives, which in turn failed. I must admit that I don’t have a better solution. In an education system captured by SADTU and mismanaged by the ANC government, maybe there is no solution.

  • Val Ruscheniko says:

    “You can’t grow nothing on poor soil”.

  • James Harrison says:

    Listing the good stuff is naive. As long as we have unions that call the shots and protect staff who do nothing, we will continue to have grossly under-performing schools. As with all spheres and levels of government, accountability and consequences are needed to ensure delivery. Dream on.

  • Rob Rhodes-Houghton says:

    Some arbitrary comments from 51 years in secondary and tertiary education (and most colleagues of similar age and experience agree):
    – Replacing Standard Grade and Higher Grade with the current one-size-fits-all curriculum has been disastrous and, in my opinion, has necessitated the ridiculously low 30% pass mark (not rate!), caused an overall lowering of standards and has dire psychological consequences for the less academically gifted student who could have achieved a SG distinction but now desperately hopes for a pass.
    – Many new senior high school teachers now have a four year B Ed degree, as opposed to B SC/B A + PG teaching diploma, and are often ill-equipped to teach the matric syllabus, particularly in maths and science.
    – Planting the idea that every student should go to university.
    – The ridiculous admin burden being placed on teachers these days. Meetings (about meetings), “mentorship”, pupil reports which carry on for pages (mine were all one page) with meaningless comments by all and sundry, generic training courses (to tick boxes), ……
    – The number of assessments required. Many students are writing a test of one sort or another almost every day. I gave up giving homework because students never had time to attempt it as a result of always having to prepare for a test or complete a compulsory assignment.
    – I could carry on …..

  • Linette Havinga says:

    I agree with most aspects of the article. My only comment is the the apparent obsession with access to “university”. Bring in a balance and work on access to trades. Work and fund a one year preparation for access to college, teach basics. Pull back grey power.
    We do need doctors, engineers, CAs, actuaries and other less important professionals but we need tradesmen and basic services more.

    • John Gosling says:

      But Linette, the entire system for training trades people was systematically dismantled years ago by one Kadar Asmal! It is non-existent! He also gutted teacher’s training colleges and nursing colleges – in his wisdom…

      • Roger Sheppard says:

        Agree. But, his motivation remains unmentioned. As a Communist he may be presumed to have read much communist literature, about education. Education that breeds independent thought, and promotes energetic attempts at rational decisions, based upon rational thinking, does not suit the NDR!
        Anthea Jeffery’s wide-ranging writings need to be shown to have been read by the Professor, especially her histories on Natal & KWA-ZuluNatal, and the resultant books on her prognoses for our future.
        The over-riding immediate need, for education RSA, is for opposition to win 2024, in order that the SABC may be taken over, by energetic rational leaders, men and women bound by TRUTH and a mindfulness of humanity at large.
        Education will follow, almost naturally!
        Simple!

  • Alan Thompson says:

    The article is instructive.

    Estonia spends 5.9% of GDP on education, South Africa spends 6.2%. UK / US are 5.3%. Singapore is 2.4%.

    So we spend more of our national wealthy on education than these good performers.

    The issue is not money, but where that money goes. The system is broken.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    What was the literacy rate in this geographic area known as the Republic of South Africa in 1651? 0%.

    In 1652, the Dutch established a victualing station in what is Cape Town today. The Cape Colony gradually expanded until 1780 when its border was defined as the Great Fish River. At this point in time, the Cape Colony had already started educating its inhabitants. But what was the literacy rate in the rest of South Africa? 0%.

    In 1795 the British captured the Cape Colony, only to give it back to the Dutch in 1803, and retake it in 1806. NOTE: at this stage, the only colonised section of South Africa was what we call the Western Cape today, and the rest of the country was still illiterate and uncolonised.

    In 1834 slavery in the Cape Colony was abolished by the British, and in 1835 the Great Trek began. The Great Trek was in no way a colonisation – it was a refugee influx into the areas of Natal, Free State and ultimately the Transvaal.

    Britain annexed the ZAR in 1877, but by 1881 the Boers had ended colonisation. By this stage, the British had expanded their colony into the eastern cape and parts of Natal. Also att this stage, the Free State and Transvaal had not been colonised. After the second Boer war ending in 1901, the position changed whereby the whole of Southern Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland had fallen under the British yoke.

    The irony of your colonialisation comment is the province with the longest colonial rule has the highest literacy rate today.

  • Con Tester says:

    Prof, you left out “excluding SADTU from having input into basic education” from your list of restructurings. That cuts your credibility by, oh, about 60 per cent because SADTU is by far the single most destructive / obstructive agent in SA’s basic education system.

    Another problem is the content of the B.Ed. degree, much of which is so abstract and distanced from the realities faced by teachers that it borders on irrelevance. And shovelling the blame for that particular aspect onto colonialism and apartheid is just sorely misguided.

    The pervasive malaise of state interference by unqualified troglodytes whose only loyalties are to a bunch of hackneyed party lines and their own pocketbooks also needs addressing with more than the hot air and lip service it is afforded by our spineless, gutless, sackless, feckless, and utterly useless windbag of a state president.

    Many years ago, I contemplated moving from a lucrative technical career to teaching STEM subjects at high school level. You know, those core subjects that are necessary, but not in themselves sufficient, to ensure success in the modern world. However, canvassing the knowledge and experience of other teachers in that space convinced me that I would be heading towards at least one of Dante’s circles of hell.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Call it what it is just about everything is in ruins,law,justice,health,transport,etc

  • Leigh Damons says:

    Watch the movie.
    “Wont back down” [Two women try to transform their children’s failing school. However, they must overcome the rampant corruption and bureaucracy to be successful in their quest.]

    Why can’t we do that?

    • Con Tester says:

      I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that those two women were reasonably well educated.

      The ANC has, through neglect, apathy, and incompetence mostly, rather than deliberate design, and together with the eager assistance of SADTU, lucked itself into a position where basic education in SA has remained so sodden and deficient for so long that very few parents, if any, are able to recognise that party’s devastation of basic education. And by the same strategy, anyone who objects to that status quo is at the very least branded a racist or a traitor.

      And that’s why we can’t do that here.

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