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No, Prof Tomlinson, SA’s basic education system is not in ruins, it’s on the rise

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Angie Motshekga is the basic education minister and a United Nations high-level panel member on the teaching profession.

Folk devils and moral panics result in manufactured outrage, designed to scare users of public schooling and deter private-sector investment in South Africa’s basic education sector.

In his 22 November article in Daily Maverick, Call it what it is — the SA education system is in complete ruins, Professor Mark Tomlinson succumbs to a flawed yet common belief: the assumption that present challenges in the basic education sector suggest a more favourable past for South Africa’s education.

This viewpoint is a classic embodiment of sociologist Stanley Cohen’s theory of Folk Devils and Moral Panics. This narrative portrays the Department of Basic Education as folk devils intent on ruining the sector. Tomlinson casts himself as a moral crusader, stirring up manufactured outrage to return the system to its glory days.

Reflect on Tomlinson’s “ruins” metaphor, suggesting a once-grand entity now deteriorated. Is this apt for South Africa’s basic education? When was it more effective? This question challenges the metaphor and invites a nuanced view of the system’s challenges and progress.

Hankering for the pre-1994 glory days isn’t unique to Tomlinson; it’s a pattern shared by academics such as Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Professor Jonathan Jansen.

Stats SA surveys reveal that education access for seven to 15-year-olds has improved significantly and is now nearly universal. Early childhood development (ECD) opportunities have also increased: fewer than 40% of five-year-olds attended educational institutions in 2002, compared to almost 90% recently.

Fewer than one in 20 black South Africans born in the 1940s completed 12 years of education. By 1960, this was about one in 10. For those born in the 1980s and finishing school in the late 1990s, it was about three in 10. According to household survey data from 2021, the figure is now nearly six in 10.

Quality of education

Okay, so way more people today have access to education. But what about the quality of that education, you may ask?

Since joining international learning assessments in 1995, South Africa initially showed low and unequal levels in mathematics and science.

However, from 2002 onwards, the country has become one of the fastest improvers in all three assessments it participates in: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS); Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls); and Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Seacmeq).

This progress, alongside expanded schooling access, marks a significant achievement.

A notable caveat in the recent Pirls results is the decline in Grade 4 children’s reading comprehension between 2016 and 2021, primarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruption of schooling. This trend reflects the impact of extended school closures rather than a system “in ruins”.

Improvements in basic education have led to more people qualifying for university and completing higher education. Since 2008, the number of bachelor-level passes in National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams has tripled, and undergraduate degree completions have doubled since 2009.

Infrastructure

Beyond educational outcomes, school infrastructure has seen significant improvements. The 1996 Schools Register of Needs study found fewer than half of the schools had adequate facilities. However, the 2022 School Monitoring Survey shows substantial advancements: 87% now have proper toilets, 81% have access to running water, and 93% have electricity, indicating marked system improvements.

There is also a wide range of care and support programmes nowadays that have contributed to learners’ wellbeing and mitigated poverty’s effects in poor households. These include learner transport, no-fee schools, fee exemptions for needy children in fee-charging schools, and the National School Nutrition Programme, through which more than 9.6 million children receive a nutritious meal daily.

Nuanced picture

None of this is to say that everything is perfect or to justify the ongoing inequalities in the system. But we must be able to hold a more nuanced picture of reality that there can be ongoing problems and improvements simultaneously. Simply pointing to the issues and concluding or implying that things have deteriorated is ill-informed, if not intellectually dishonest.

Tomlinson substantiates his elaborate metaphor of ruins (which is dragged through his entire article) with only two indicators of educational outcomes.

First, he refers to the recent Pirls study showing a drop in the percentage of children who learn to read with meaning. I have already dealt with this, indicating that it was entirely driven by the school closures and lost teaching time caused by the pandemic. However, Tomlinson does not mention the pandemic in his discussion nor acknowledge the improving trend in Pirls before the pandemic.

Second, he quotes a statistic suggesting that only 14% of SA children qualify for university. Unfortunately, this is an old statistic and Tomlinson fails to note how this outcome has improved. The number of bachelor passes has roughly tripled since 2008.

In the 2022 National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams, 278,814 candidates achieved a bachelor pass, and a further 193,357 obtained a diploma pass, which amounts to 69.4% of the NSC candidates and about 40% of the total cohort of learners passing through the system.

Specifics

But what about Tomlinson’s recommendations for change? Aside from merely rhetorical calls for change to be radical, visionary and courageous and warnings against “Band-Aid solutions”, his article is very lean on specific practical recommendations. In the end, there are three leading suggestions.

First, Tomlinson calls for an early learning system with the goal of socio-emotional learning. Of course, this is important and is currently top of the government’s educational priorities. The recent shift of ECD functions from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education has initiated a comprehensive process of improving early learning opportunities, which builds on the improved access achieved in recent years.

The recently launched Thrive by Five Index measures a range of physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development outcomes, showing the government’s intent to focus on precisely these areas. A new ECD service model is being developed to provide flexible, age-appropriate programmes, streamline registration for subsidies, enhance the ECD workforce through training programmes, and integrate children’s healthcare partnering with the Department of Health.

Tomlinson recommends a “tech injection” in education. However, research shows that ed-tech isn’t a panacea. Technology for coaching teachers or providing laptops hasn’t yielded positive results. Additionally, ed-tech might negatively impact learning, as some evaluations have already shown.

Tomlinson’s third suggestion is to help children reconnect with nature and consider how climate change will disrupt food systems. This is admirable, and the government is working to strengthen aspects of education for sustainability across the curriculum, but does this kind of highly aspirational thinking fit Tomlinson’s own diagnosis of the problems being foundational literacy and numeracy to allow more people to complete school and qualify for university?

Clearly, calling for a “system overhaul” is easier than offering practical recommendations. Education system change is lengthy and complex, but South Africa’s basic education system is on the rise.

We encourage all stakeholders, like Tomlinson, to engage with government documents such as the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and the Action Plan to 2030: Towards the Realisation of Schooling, 2030, providing detailed plans and analyses of challenges. Engaging with these documents is more constructive than relying on foils and non-sequiturs. DM

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  • Hermann Funk says:

    We have a systems where the unions determine what happens and a minister of education who is a paper tiger.

    • Sean Hammon says:

      As a measure for success it quotes pass/admission rates, but this is in a system of ever reducing standards. She and the ANC are a bloated, self-serving, shameless horde, attached as a parasite to the SA that might have been.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Communistic drivel

  • Ben Harper says:

    Hahahahaha – coming from one of the main culprits who have caused the collapse is anyone surprised?

  • JDW 2023 says:

    What is this minister smoking?

  • Andrew R says:

    There is no way Angie wrote this herself. BUT it is the rubbish all of the ANC believe.

    The CAPS curriculum is not fit for purpose, there is too much meddling by the department. The curriculum is far too prescriptive, meaning little room for teachers to adapt content to suit the needs of the learners in front of us. Add to that the mark adjustments of up to 5% in three subjects, and the condonation if Maths marks (which are now a permanent fixture until the Protocol on Promotion and Progressions is rewritten), and we continue to fail our learners. We teach them that they only need the bare minimum (45% in Home Language, 35% in all other subjects), and the department will progress them by giving them up to 5% for free. Imagine the adult workforce they will become one day (that is, of course, if they can get jobs in SA)!

    Teachers are also swamped with ever increasing piles of useless paperwork that is often duplicated. The department requires schools to submit our databases to them on a weekly basis, but then schools have to resubmit the same information in slightly different formats, over and over again. All of this is meaningless, and has no benefit apart from providing nice stats for Angie to spew to make herself look good.

    No, the Prof is 100% correct, our education system is in ruin. Only the removal of the useless ANC and the dim hope of a competent government, can result in anything changing about this situation.

  • Raymond Auerbach says:

    Dr Angie Motshekga’s thoughtful piece emphasises some of the reasons for optimism about South Africa’s educational future; the negative reactions from some readers are hardly surprising, but not very useful! My father, Franz Auerbach, spent his life working for quality education for all. His MEd thesis on “The power of prejudice in South African history textbooks” showed, as Dr Angie points out, that the poisonous racist system of Bantu Education coloured so much of what was allowed in the Old South Africa. Dad’s PhD looked at why schoolkids drop out of school, and his shocking statistic that 25% of children drop out after ONE YEAR of schooling caused widespread horror. He did a study on what it would take to equalise education for all, and his conclusions were sobering: you will have to start with pre-school education, he said, systematically building education from the bottom up. If this had been done (rather than the initial closure of many preschools and some teachers colleges), we might have spent the first ten years of democracy building a solid foundation. Instead of this, we tried to improve higher education without attending to the foundation. However, as Dr Angie points out, we did realise our mistake, and we have done a lot recently to improve preschool education. Still, as a professor of soil science and plant production at Nelson Mandela University (now retired), I saw how each year the quality of 1st year students deteriorated. Teachers, we need your commitment!

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      What the ANC did in 1994 was to look at everything that worked under apartheid and scrap it, instead of expanding on it and adapting it to the benefit of the whole country – education included. The problem was, that many of those in the Ministry (and other ministries) were dyed in the wool leftists who lived in exile in near-socialist systems in Europe in the 70s and imported those ideas back into South Africa. This is despite them being abandoned in Europe (and Australia – we implemented the useless, corrupt and utterly failed SETA system just as Australia, on which it was based, abandoned it).

      You final comment about how each year the quality of students deteriorated is probably the most important one you make: for all the bluster (from the Minister) about access to education and opportunities, the quality is woeful. Aside from my experience as a business owner, I tutored at Wits for a number of years from the late 80s to mid-90s, and the quality of students was already starting to slip then, under the old system.

    • jcdville stormers says:

      And what is your educated opinion about 30% as a pass

    • Geoff Coles says:

      She doesn’t have a Doctotate but Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Education.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Hahahahahahaha

    • J vN says:

      So, in short, 30 to 40 years after apartheid was dismantled, you’re still blaming apartheid for the fact that Grade 4s can’t read and their teachers can’t master the subject matter.

      How long should we give things a chance to improve then? 300 years? 3000?

  • Chris Binnington says:

    I was sceptical when I embarked on this article. Ministers in the ANC govt rarely demonstrate that they were appointed on merit but this Minister’s reply is well written. Perhaps there is a small candle glowing at the end of a very dark tunnel. If she is correct it begs the question what are her colleagues doing to stimulate the economy and provide jobs for this apparently increasingly educated population?

    • Heinrich Holt says:

      Well written by a product that was not schooled in Angie’s system would be my guess.

    • Con Tester says:

      “Beg the question” is the direct old(er) English translation of the Latin term “petitio principii,” which is a logical fallacy wherein a conclusion is taken for granted in the premisses (e.g., “The Bible is true because it says so in the Bible”). It does not mean the same as “raise the question” or “prompt the question,” both of which afford the same word economy. The phrase has been misused so much that dictionaries, particularly US dictionaries, of late define it—incorrectly, according to its aforesaid etymology—as meaning the same as “raise / prompt / provoke &c. the question.”

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Lots of stats from the Minister about access to education and improvements in the number of students graduating – but the numbers are still too low and the quality of what they’re producing is not fit for a modern economy. My personal, limited, experience of hiring graduates and post-grads into my company has been bitterly disappointing, in that most have no ability to think for themselves or interrogate issues, just reproduce rote learning.

    And turning her figures around – 13% of schools still have pit latrines and 19% of schools no running water! We apparently have 23,000 public schools in SA, so that means that almost 3,000 schools still have pit latrines and almost 4,400 have no water. That is a crime against humanity and definitely nothing to crow about.

  • Andrew C says:

    I very much doubt this was written by the minister. Perhaps she has discovered ChatGPT.
    It is a lot of spin doctoring. On the ground, running a business, the quality of CVs I see is depressing. There are so many desperate young people who have been poorly prepared for the working world. It is criminal to allow someone to pass with less than 50% and send them out into the world believing they have been educated.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    You’d need to be a scholar recently drowned in a pit toilet at one of the good minister’s primary schools to believe a single word she says. Shameless thief of the futures of a generation of kids.

  • Senzo Moyakhe says:

    Talking about quality and setting 30% as an acceptable pass mark leaves me questioning your ability for coherent reasoning Minister.

    Lots of pretty stats that you throw in there but how about approaching the reality from the ground level as opposed to your utopian towers.

  • Godfrey Parkin says:

    This polished spin-piece, compared with past utterings, was probably not her own work (go to detention and write 100 times “I must do my own homework”). It has the seemingly authoritative flow of good propaganda, rich in deflections (has Russia’s FSB, who appear to be now masterminding the media posts of CR and other Ministers, reached into education too?) – yet doesn’t stand up to interrogation.

    You can’t install a tap and claim people now have access to water if the pipes don’t work and what little trickles out of them is not potable.

    After 30 years, SA’s education level is still among the worst in the world, and does not produce adults capable of growing (and thriving in) a modern economy. It’s not about not having enough budget, either, but about how incompetently and corruptly that money is spent.

    I’m not even going to get started on her apparently primitive understanding of edtech / elearning, and the many falsities in her piece have been pointed out by other commenters. Here’s one many don’t realise: Claiming to be one of the world’s fastest improvers in maths & science is nonsense. SA submitted Grade 5s and 9s to the 2019 TIMSS test to which every other country submitted Grade 4s and 8s (still SA’s scores were too low to be considered meaningful, and was ranked in the bottom 3). She compares those scores against the 2003 TIMSS to which SA had submitted Grade 4s and 8s – and declares a major improvement. It’s fundamentally innumerate – or delusional.

  • Senzo Moyakhe says:

    “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.”

    This is one part of Professor Tomlinson’s opinion piece that has struck a chord with my line of thought. Having grown up in a township and attended one of the most prestigious schools in SA (I started high school just as the Model C system came online) means that I straddled the fence. I’ve experienced the vast disparities at the coalface.

    There is no doubt that the post-colonial and Apartheid era education system needed dismantling, but the ANC approach to that dismantling was an extension of their blinkered approach to ripping apart anything that had ‘White South Africa’ as part of its history. There was a lot that was right about the ‘White education system’ at the time. The ‘…singular lack of imagination and vision since 1994 has ensured we have remained mostly stagnant’ is a major part of the problem we face today. And I disagree with the Professor, we have not remained stagnant, we have regressed terribly. Not taking what was right about ‘White education’ and re-engineering it appropriately to take the Bantu education system and throw it in the bin is the imaginative element of the required solution.

    • Senzo Moyakhe says:

      Sorry, the last sentence should read “Taking what was right about ‘White education’ and re-engineering it appropriately so that it could take on the Bantu education system and throw that in the bin, is the imaginative element of the required solution.”

    • PETER BAKER says:

      Funny thing to write “Centuries of colonization and apartheid ensured this ruination.” If this is the cause of the colossal failure of the Education system in SA, why are all the other post-colonial countries not suffer the miserable failure of the educational system from start to finish? India (also had an apartheid during the colonial period), Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Argentina, all former colonies and all have good educational systems. What has set us apart and miles behind everyone else has been the ruinous policies of an ANC government.

      • Senzo Moyakhe says:

        A deliberate, legislated system of bringing below grade education to the majority of the population is ruinous. This was Bantu education. These other countries that had been colonised did not legislate a system aimed at bringing a lower standard of education to one section of the population. When that section happens to be 80% of the population, a seed for disaster has been planted.

        ‘White education’ in SA was at the same level (or even above) as the other countries that were previously colonised by European settlers. Continuing with a homogenous education system was relatively simple. In SA, the education system was segregated in the same way the racial segregation laws were implemented. Re-integrating these education systems was always going to be a massive challenge, especially due to the heavily lopsided resource and infrastructural endowments present right from foundation phase through to tertiary education institutions.

        These were – and unfortunately still are – the elements that required “…imagination and vision…” that the ANC hopelessly failed to address. Sadly, an additional 30 years (an entire generation) has been piled upon this decay. So much longer and much more difficult to fix. The Minister quotes all these pretty numbers, nice to see on paper and make TV comments. What is present on the ground largely goes opposite to what she is saying in my corner of SA. I suspect it is pretty much the same in all corners of the country.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    One of the things that one rejects with the contempt it deserves is that our basic education is very poor. I find this argument as complete rubbish when one compares what the science education syllabus is about. As a person who has done mathematics in matric I have seen with my own children the difference between the syllabus one did under Bantu education and now. In mathematics we only met differential calculus, statistics, mathematics of finance at university. This goes for mathematical literacy that has statistics and other elements that in my view are enough for the university admission for accounting. The lies the DA, Maimane and Tomlison peddle are having no basis in fact in terms of the pass requirements. You need to look at the admission requirements of our universities that debunk these lies that repeated by these plumbers with regularity. In fact during our times you would meet information technology at university level but children are taught CAT at high school level and this enables them to reach tertiary education being computer literate. In my view the current matriculants are employable than we were as school leavers. The only thing is to ensure that we have the requisite science teachers as the Investec CSI has shown in its commendable programme. People have to really provide a comparative analysis of the syllabi and say what is poor about our basic education. There are problems in our education system but not standards. I can show the clowns concretely.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    Was this written by AI?

  • Alan Thompson says:

    I’m afraid the minister’s reply actually makes the picture worse by refusing to accept reality.
    – He did not “suggest a more favourable past for South Africa’s education”, he literally said “Centuries of colonisation and apartheid ensured this ruination“
    – It’s great more children are going to school. I don’t recall anyone saying this was a bad thing. His article makes the point that what they learn when they get there is internationally sub-standard, inadequate for the modern world and going backwards.
    – The selective choice of statistics is revealing. The rapid improvement in TIMSS still has SA still in the bottom 3!

    Lastly, the minister’s credibility collapsed when she – or more likely her staff – write, “87% now have proper toilets, 81% have access to running water, and 93% have electricity” Did she really write this and consider it an achievement worth shouting about? There is no better illustration of the ANC’s educational myopia than they are proud that after 30 years c. 3,000 schools have pit latrines & more than 4,000 have no access to running water. It is impossible to read the rest of the article and believe anything is positive once this comment has been digested.

    • Andrew C says:

      Indeed. Around 1 in 10 schools do not have electricity or proper toilets. 2 in 10 do not have running water. How can you possibly educate children like this? Mbeki told us about 15 years ago that all schools would have proper toilets by the end of that year.
      The fact our children test amongst the worst in the world for reading is appalling. How can they possibly expect to compete globally?

  • PETER BAKER says:

    As a so called “professional” employing people from those with no real or meaningful education, to those with a Dr. in front of their name, I can sadly attest to the across the board failure of the education system in this country. Over the years as employees with a pre 1990’s education retired from work, to the present day post 2000 graduates, I have noted an alarming inability of young people, with a supposed matric qualification, to comprehend simple functional instructions or to do simple arithmetic calculations or to understand very basic numeracy. But if you need to know only 30% of a subject to pass what more can be expected? South African education is a failure, and under its present control by an ANC government and a highly politicized trade union controlled force of school teachers, there is no hope for any real improvement. Despite Motshekga’s claims, I would say that even Bantu Education, for all its badness, graduated people who were worthy of the piece of paper. Today’s paper handed out by Motshekga is really worthless. She, despite stating from the outset that quality vs. quantity was the issue she has gone on to show the reader that it is all about numbers passing through the system, and not an iota about what students actually learn and are capable of doing with the worthless certificate Motshekga and Co. have presented the poor kid. Now this high school graduate is in university learning to be an accountant or medical doctor or school teacher and has no basic knowledge but only needs 30% to “pass”….that’s why the ANC sends its sick comrades to Mother Russia for medical attention, the ANC is bankrupt, and the ANC education is in a downward spiral…… ABANC.

    • Senzo Moyakhe says:

      Seeing as you say that Bantu education graduated people who were worthy of the piece of paper, what was the worth/value of that piece of paper? The comment you make here is disingenuous, cynical and displays a distinct lack disregard to what Bantu education did to the SA population.

      • PETER BAKER says:

        ……but just look at what an ANC led education has done to the Kids of South Africa as well as the country as a whole…….we have lost two generations of people who are totally incapable of doing anything which requires a little knowledge….thank you ANC Education Inc!

  • Vas K says:

    Whatever we think of Ms Motshekga article, she should be given a credit for responding to the criticism. An extremely rare event among politicians. Most of her colleagues couldn’t give a hoot what people think and happily continue to live mushroom existence in the dark content in knowledge that the plebs think them to be demigods.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    I have just one question for Ms Motshekga. Do your children and grandchildren attend government run schools?

  • Mkulu Isizulumhlopi says:

    I am in fits…….you are just like Naledi Pandor and great big T..d!

  • Rob Rhodes-Houghton says:

    Nonsense, Angie (or whoever wrote this drivel for you), utter nonsense! Please invite me for a cup of tea.

  • Rochelle Fellinger-Ndlovu says:

    I looked at the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and the Action Plan to 2030: Towards the Realisation of Schooling, 2030 (as reference in the article) and I looked at the Basic Education Law Amendment Bill. It appears as if they are each trying to meet different objections. For instance the framework says ‘create a better school environment to improve student retention’; while the BELA Bill threatens increased fine or imprisonment for parents (higher than several other countries) whose children aren’t attending? If the BELA Bill is passed then how will we know if the increased student retention is a result of forced fear or improved environment conditions.

    What about the clauses in the Bela Bill which refer to the closing of small & non viable schools resulting in children (many of underprivileged communities) having to travel further distances to get to a school.

    I would love to see a document showing how the approval of the BELA Bill supports the framework objectives.
    These framework objectives are just good intentions, there is no penalty if they aren’t achieved (maybe just a frown and a let’s try again); but laws are long lasting and have severe penalties.

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