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SA’s schooling system promotes excellence at every level, despite what the doom-mongers say

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Elijah Mhlanga is Chief Director for Communication at the Department of Basic Education.

Every year without fail, people attack the Department of Basic Education – many of them with little or no factual information to bolster their usually baseless arguments.

Every year at this time, out of the woodwork pop bogus education “experts” who, despite the availability of free information and data, cast aspersions on South Africa’s schooling system in an attempt to grab headlines and enjoy airtime on radio and television.

They hop from one media outlet to another, regurgitating the same old stories of doom and gloom. What is baffling is the media’s keenness to give these “experts” airtime without probing their motives. 

The favourite topic of the “experts” is the minimum pass requirement.

The threshold of 30% and 40% has been explained on numerous occasions. If you have been living under a rock or somewhere else where such information is unavailable, it is a minimum level of achievement and is by no means the targeted level of achievement.

We have also been at great pains to explain that no learner will attain a certificate if they achieve 30% in all seven subjects taken at the Grade 12 level. This minimum level of achievement is to prevent learners who may not be able to perform at the required level in one subject from being held back simply because of that one subject.

South Africa’s schooling system, contrary to popular opinion, promotes excellence at every level, and we continually monitor the percentage of learners who attain distinctions and those who attain admission to bachelor studies. These, of course, are the higher levels of achievement in the system. Education is about taking the entire population of learners from where they are to the next level.

The National Senior Certificate (NSC), commonly referred to as matric, has enjoyed societal acceptance as South Africa’s premier schooling qualification and provides successful candidates with potential access to tertiary institutions and the world of work. The NSC not only enjoys local recognition but is recognised internationally and hundreds of our learners are studying at international institutions after using the South African matric as the admission qualification. 

Engineers, medical scientists, surgeons and the chief executive officers of large conglomerates are all products of the South African schooling system. They certainly cannot be the products of a “matric certificate that is not worth the paper it is printed on”.  

Three-stream model

The rapidly evolving work environment and radically changing industry requirements warrant continual changes. As far back as 2018 the department embarked on a programme that has necessitated a change in emphasis in education outcomes and differentiated education access. To this end, the department is piloting a three-stream model with expanded opportunities for learners to pursue vocational and occupational tracks.

This will ensure improved alignment between the schooling sector and the world of work and will provide learners with the skills required by the workplace. The introduction of new subjects including Marine Sciences, Coding and Robotics, Technical Science, Technical Mathematics and Technology subjects will keep the NSC relevant to industry requirements.

The department continues to work closely with industry to identify areas of need and ensure that new subjects are introduced as the demands of industries change. Entrepreneurship is a major thrust of Economic and Management Sciences, a component of subjects first taken at primary school level and pursued further at secondary school level in subjects like Economics, Business Studies and Accounting.

The department is working on a curriculum blueprint that will shift focus towards innovative and progressive pedagogies and usher in competency-based learning, more critical thinking and deeper learning.

As part of the curriculum innovation agenda, the department will also introduce a new qualification in the form of a General Education Certificate, which is designed to recognise a more holistic dashboard of learner capabilities and support learner inclinations that are more suited for career pathing.

The department is fully aware of the challenges that confront the education system, which include the low reading comprehension levels of primary school learners and the knowledge levels of some teachers.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Call it what it is — the SA education system is in complete ruins

Read more in Daily Maverick: No, Prof Tomlinson, SA’s basic education system is not in ruins, it’s on the rise

These matters are being decisively addressed through reading programmes and intensive teacher development programmes, which are being implemented in conjunction with trade unions and other key partners.

Educational changes are slow and gradual and these changes are producing green shoots, as evidenced by various credible studies. In addition, we continue to work with strategic stakeholders, locally and globally, to improve and enhance our efforts.

Constructive engagement on the education system points to a nation that is interested in what children get taught in the classroom. As a department, we thrive on collaborative efforts from across the board. Unfortunately, instead of robust debates, we often experience grandstanding by leaders of society. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Lewis says:

    Must be nice to live in this guy’s alternate reality.

    • Francois Smith says:

      Well, he didn’t state what makes him a so-called expert? Is it the fact that he is DG of the worst performing DOE on the continent? Elijah, I taught Technical Mathematics and I have studied Engineering. Now, I can tell you with an open heart that Technical Mathematics doesn’t in any way prepare any learner for any technical vocation. To name one simple example: Long division in binary numbers is doesn’t teach a learner anything more about binary numbers and if they are never taught long division, you are wasting your time.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Elija … you certainly know how to sing for your supper … keep up the exceptional charade … worthy of a Nobel prize … if only the panel knew of your dedication !

  • Jan Vos says:

    Eish, Elijah. Whatever you’re smoking, I want some of that, my bro! The gooood stuff!

  • James Redpath says:

    So now teachers get that big increase ..but at the expense of the learner’s infrastructure..it’s illogical..the teachers need to be trained better first ..the learner’s taught better..then if affordable the teachers can get these increases ..this is just like cadre deployment… rewarding many in certain jobs for nothing..at others expense .. get real ..please don’t use excellence to describe a failed system that uses up money but gives little in return .

  • Roslyn Cassidy says:

    Thanks, Elijah, for putting forward a more realistic view than is generally posited.

    Before 1994 the education budget serviced less than 10% of South Africa’s school-going population.

    We all know perfection is a long way off but significant gains have been made.

  • Ann James says:

    You are aware of how they add a percentage if a child fails in September, then again when marks are poor when they write matric.
    No everybody. Only those that fail, specially, Maths etc.
    If you can’t read with comprehension…

  • Jp Rome says:

    My reply would not be posted… No reason why…

  • David C says:

    What really burns me is that we live in a societal construct whereby money extorted from me in the form of taxes (under threat of state-directed violence and/or incarceration) is redistributed to people like this author, who literally adds no value to society and can sprout utter BS without sanction or consequence.

    • William Kelly says:

      Carry on paying mate. That’s the only system still working – extraction from the working classes under penalty of prison. I wonder why?

  • Senzo Moyakhe says:

    Engineers, medical scientists, surgeons and the chief executive officers of large conglomerates are all products of the South African schooling system. They certainly cannot be the products of a “matric certificate that is not worth the paper it is printed on”

    Certainly NOT the South African PUBLIC schooling system and the bulk of them pre-date your glorified 30% acceptable pass rates.

    Now pass me that joint, I need a puff…

  • Johann Crafford says:

    Ignorance truly is bliss! Anybody who thinks or believes the SA education system is working, sets the bar very low indeed. But then again, if you set the bar low, everybody is successful. Bullshit baffles brains!

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Head in the sand. Which private school are your kids at?

  • Geoff Coles says:

    It’s about time Elijah moved on

  • Peter Holmes says:

    Regarding what Mr Mhlanga has to say on the matter of the “excellence” of SA’s schooling system brings to mind Mandy Rice-Davies’ (in)famous quote dismissing a denial by Lord Astor (I’ll spare everyone the salubrious details) “Well, he would [say that], wouldn’t he?”

  • Mariella Norman says:

    A few years ago our part time domestic worker’s son, who had completed his Grade 10 with good results (70-80%) at a government school in a township decided he did not want to complete his matric there as he did not see a prospect of getting a job with that qualification. He wanted to train as an electrician and asked if we could help him apply to a technical training college which we did and sponsored him for the first term. But his dreams were shattered when he realised that the marks he had been given at his school were a complete thumb suck and ego boosting exercise by his teachers. His knowledge and ability were so poor that he failed the first term at the college so badly they could not let him continue. We asked the college if he couldn’t reapply and try again but this was not acceptable. This ANC government’s department of education has a lot to answer for in setting this young man up to fail by lying to him about his ability through an incompetent system that does not seem to have any checks on standards and relies on the ‘marks’ the teachers dream up as a benchmark for how the school is performing. He is now selling vegetables in the township trying to make a living. Shame on you ANC!

  • Sipho Dlamini says:

    Unfortunately the author fails to address the concerns people have, particularly the final results of the education system. Specifically, the large number of students that leave school with no matric, only a grade 11. Also the relatively high reported matric pass rates vs the sub standard education the students emerge with.

  • Robin Kemp says:

    I mean – he really thinks he is doing a great job !

    • Clare Rothwell says:

      As Director of Communication he seems to be doing exactly what he is paid to do. He explains the Department’s view of itself very effectively.

      • Andrew Johnson says:

        Clare – your comment is pertinent. It seems that the prevailing culture is one that does not deal with reality but is rather bolstered by a selective evaluation of education in SA. It is a sort of fool’s paradise. Surely the preparedness level of students entering university will give a clear indicator of output quality? Yet the drop-out rate in 1st year university is apparently very high. The department’s view of itself is deeply flawed, based on empirical evidence.

  • Brad John says:

    Next time you might want to think about halving your crack dosage Mr Mhlanga.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Read Chris Makhaye’ article on his interview of Pali Lehohla for a dose of reality. You may tell the emperor he has clothes when he is wearing none but that does not change the facts. So long as the ostrich mentality prevails and problems and failures are not acknowledged nothing will improve for the majority of learners who will be condemned to a life of dependency and unemployment by the incompetence of those who are intended to facilitate a future for them.

  • Derek Jones says:

    Maverick why you posted this in the first place is a mystery? Some people might read it as fact.
    please let us know what you think of the school system.

  • Mkulu Zulu says:

    Dear Daily Maverick
    How could you give this ANC moron the space to spout his CRAP.
    The readership here is intelligent and does not need to be insulted by his claptrap.

  • Mkulu Zulu says:

    The BEE people in high positions in the Private sector are products of private educatio, never the less even if they are the MD the 2 IC is the person running the show!

  • Dee Bee says:

    As someone who has had the sad reality of employing quite a few young South Africans (of all backgrounds) in the last decade, many with post graduate degrees, I can’t help thinking that the author is living in a parallel universe. I’ve been bitterly disappointed with both the level of education they have, as well as the ability to apply what they’ve learned – it’s parrot fashion box ticking masquerading as education. Most are simply not equipped for the workplace. There are obviously fantastic exceptions and also those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and put the effort in to learn and progress. And they do.

    On the plus side, introducing some of the ‘new economy’ subjects outlined must be applauded – assuming they’re taught correctly and to a standard required for entry into a 21st century economy.

  • Con Tester says:

    Having tutored matric- and first year university level students for several years post-1994 in a few STEM subjects, I can state categorically that Mr Mhlanga is either misguided, mendacious, or flat-out delusional. Over the years, there has been a measurable decline in subject matter comprehension and ability. I base this claim on an initial assessment test I gave my charges prior to any tutoring. This test has remained the same over those years while the students’ competency decreased consistently.

    Still, it’s curious that there is no mention of the destruction SADTU wreaked on basic education in SA with its toxic mix of megalomania and inapt ideology.

  • Alan Thompson says:

    Interesting that there is almost no data / stats / numbers in this delusional article. How does SA compare internationally? How much does it spend as a % of GDP, and what return does it get on that vs other countries? What are the trends – independently judged – over time? Etc.

  • Respect for Truth says:

    This piece goes to the heart of the problem. People involved in the education department believe they are excellent despite overwhelming evidence that they have catastrophically failed the people of South Africa. How will things ever improve with this degree of delusion?

    • Tony B says:

      This is very true for all government departments and state-owned enterprises. The people involved REALLY BELIEVE that they are doing an excellent job. Delusional indeed!

  • Godfrey Parkin says:

    Education has failed to fuel national growth, and has let down the youth of the country. It is unacceptable to assert that improvements in education take time, when we live in a world of exponential change. Education processes must become more dynamic, adapting to (ideally anticipating) the changes in the real world. Being bogged down in 1950s style bureaucracy, trade unionism, corruption, incompetence, and distance from global reality is not helpful.

    The notion that “education is about taking the entire population of learners from where they are to the next level” is nonsense. It’s not about “qualifications” at all. Education is about wiring young minds to be able to solve problems, innovate, empathize and build a competitive, prosperous society. Only the educated are free – but SA’s Department of Basic Education merely adds shackles.

  • William Kelly says:

    The headline didn’t disappoint. Thank you DM for publishing this piece – it is self evident why the system is as rotten and broken as it is. Problems… What problems? Life is groovy here in the cloud cuckoo land where fields of mashed potatoes and rivers of gravy adorn the landscape. Where pork sausages frolick in amidst tall trees of puff pastry and garnishings of salt and pepper.
    Read that for meaning sir.

  • Jeremy Kropman says:

    Ag shame.
    Poor Mr Mhlanga is struggling with “grandstanding by leaders of society”.
    Isn’t it about time he wondered why the grandstand was so full.
    Has he noticed that the entire stadium has now filled up and that outside, there is an ever growing queue?
    Can someone please bring to Mr Mhlanga’s attention that no one is there to say “well done” to his Department of Basic Education?

  • Son of Man says:

    Riiiight….

  • George Olivier says:

    Rubbish. Absolute rubbish.

  • Anonymous Suomynona says:

    Regarding Mr Mhlanga’s remark about “doomsayers…. living under a rock…” He should know everyone there as he is clearly stuck under there as well! Learners aim for 30% or 40% to pass, as they reckon nothing more is required to pass. The learners who excel and become engineers, etc, do so because of dedication by themselves, their parents, and pockets of excellence in the education system (e.g. stalwart teachers, old Model C schools not yet ruined by the DBE, etc.). They are fixated on the amount of distinctions obtained, instead of looking at the dropout rate, and the average % in subjects, as an indication of the real state of affairs.

  • Martin Birtwhistle says:

    Well Elijah I’m afraid your assertions are not borne out by the lived experience of those at the receiving end of your so-called premier educational qualification. Firstly, how do you explain that only 19% of SA Gr 4 learners can read for meaning (PIRLS, 2023), a drop of 3% from 2106? Secondly, my experience as both a HR Executive and a Managing Director of a medium-sized company is that we were not able to use a Gr 12 certificate as sufficient proof of an employees ability to access workplace education and training. When assessing such employees using credible ABET measurements, the average score for employees with a Gr12 certificate was ABET L2 for English (equivalent to Gr 5) and mathematical numeracy it was ABET L1 (equivalent to Gr 3). Whilst I welcome the changes to the new curriculum, just where are the educators going to come from who will be able to teach robotics and coding – are these courses currently being taught at teacher education institutions or are they yet to be introduced? I suspect the latter in which case we are at least 20 years behind the technology curve and we will again be left behind.

  • Antonio Tonin says:

    Elijah, can we agree that your department’s moniker , “basic education” is a fairly apt descriptor? I’m sure there are bright minds with good career paths who’ve survived the SA schooling system, but I have no doubt that this is despite the system, not because of it.

  • Vas K says:

    I was absolutely sure that this was a poor attempt at a joke but, seeing the readers’ reactions, the guy must have been at least perceived to be serious. If so, it provides a very scary insight into the minds of cadres.

  • Paul Fanner says:

    Chat GPT4 ?

    • T'Plana Hath says:

      Nah, AIs are not that blatantly tautologous: “little or no factual information to bolster their usually baseless arguments” is a mistake an AI would not make.

      Baseless *literally* means not based on fact and/or unsupported/bolstered, and it is not required in this sentence.

      Slow clap for the DBE …

  • Andrew C says:

    He avoids two critical issues. 1. SA learners perform exceptionally badly when tested relative to kids elsewhere in world. Their level of reading comprehension is abysmal. 2. The chances of a child progressing from Grade 1 to matric are not good. Many kids fall out of the system along the way.
    What do you have to say about those, Elijah?

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Blah blah blah, look at the outcomes. Makes a mockery of futile article.

  • James Webster says:

    People such as this author should not be given airtime and hence legitimacy by being allowed to write hideously biased articles for a publication such as Daily Maverick. While we all believe in free speech, most of us don’t enjoy the type of bald-faced lying that this author practices. The first strike against this author is that he must be an ANC cadre given his association with the Department of Education ( should probably be the Department of Miseducation ), the second strike is that he voluntarily allies himself with a group of people whose incompetence and self-delusion has, and is, damaging the futures of millions of South African schoolchildren, and the third strike is that he drinks the bullshit cool-aid of the loony-toon Minister of Miseducation not only buying into her deceit but also actively defending the fantasies she lives by. It’s one thing to commit sin by virtue of your own vices, but quite another to actively promulgate lies espoused by others as this ANC stooge does. There is no hell deep enough for someone who destroys the future of a child.

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