South Africa: A Frank Assessment

a frank assessmentCAPE TOWN, South Africa | Zukile Mhlengana is contemplating leaving the teaching profession after spending 15 years in the classroom. He is a math and science teacher at Masibambisane High School in Delft, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town.

“Today we’re given this, and tomorrow we’re given that, and you end up not knowing what you’re doing,” says a frustrated Mhlengana, who is among scores of teachers who are fed up with the current educational system, the Outcome Based Education (OBE) program.

Adopted by the South African government in 1996 in an attempt to reshape the country’s curriculum and approach to teaching, the OBE continues to spark passionate debates among experts about the shape of educational reforms. But the continuing controversy is hardly the only problem dogging the education system in South Africa.

Others include massive backlogs in repairing or building school infrastructure, poor grade completion rates at schools, high dropout rates, and the lack of qualified science and mathematics teachers.

Still, for some teachers such as Mhlengana, the debate about the OBE has remained center stage, no longer eliciting just passion, but also anger.

“Fifteen years ago, teachers spent most of the time in the classroom teaching. That’s what they were paid to do. Now teachers are expected to double as administrators. We’re told that we should be at school on time and teaching, but there’s no sufficient time for effective teaching and learning,” Mhlengana says.

Too much paperwork?

Teacher unions have also complained about the administrative burden that the OBE introduced into the South African educational system, which has, they say, forced teachers to do more paperwork than actual teaching. Many teachers also say that proper and sufficient training did not accompany the launch of the OBE.

Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen, an independent researcher and public policy analyst, agrees that the OBE has increased the administrative burden on teachers: “However, there is a deeper question as to whether the OBE system is appropriate for South Africa. The revised curriculum is difficult to understand, and implement in classrooms with over 35 learners,” he said. “In South Africa, many schools – especially in poorer areas – have much larger class sizes, making implementation of the OBE curriculum extremely difficult.”

In their critique of the OBE, parents, education experts, and others have also pointed to the consistently poor results in all three levels of the educational system over the past decade. Until now, the government has merely defended the OBE and refused to acknowledge its failings. Officials have argued that the OBE was still capable of producing a highly educated workforce that could support the expansion of the South African economy.

However, in March, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga admitted for the first time that many of the country’s schools are “dysfunctional”. She acknowledged that many pupils were leaving the “foundation” phase of the education system “without basic literacy and numeracy skills required to succeed later on”.

“The majority of teachers lack the required subject knowledge, are not teaching what they are trained to teach, and too often lack the commitment to teach for six-and-a-half hours every day,” Motshekga said, as she briefed the media on the progress made in overcoming the education crisis in South Africa.

On that theme, Helen Zille – leader of the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance – also decried the poor quality of teaching in South African schools in a recent newspaper commentary. “There have been several major studies on this which consistently demonstrate that in failing schools, teachers often do not have the subject content knowledge required of them,” she wrote. “One of the shocking statistics in the McKinsey Report concluded that only 33 percent of teachers teaching Grades 4 – 7 in 1,000 schools across four provinces were able to pass numeracy tests at the level that was expected of their pupils.”

Released in 2007, the McKinsey Report studied 25 of the world’s school systems, including the education system in South Africa, to find out why some schools succeed where others do not. The report said the experiences of the top school systems suggest that three things matter most: getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors, and ensuring that the system is available to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

Motshekga conceded that more than 1,700 South African science teachers are not qualified to teach science, meaning that an estimated 50,000 pupils are not receiving teaching from competent enough educators. In some areas of South Africa, students and teachers also face a staggering lack of school infrastructure, as Minister Motshekga conceded at the same press conference mentioned above. She put the funds needed at R140 billion ($18 billion). Some of the country’s pupils, especially those who live in far-flung rural areas, are still learning under trees and in debilitating mud buildings with dirt floors.

In March, the SABC, the country’s public broadcaster, aired a shocking news story that showed children as young as four years of age cramped in a bathroom that was being used as a classroom because of the lack of rooms at the school.

“We still have many poorly constructed mud buildings that collapse with the first rains,” Motshekga said.

School Attendance Drops

A 20 09 General Household Survey released in May by Statistics South Africa, the official statistics agency, showed that the lack of money in poorer communities remains the primary reason for the large proportion of individuals who are not studying in South Africa.

The survey found that in South Africa 81.2 percent of those aged between seven and 24 were attending an education institution. Some provinces, however, were worse than others: As many as 44.3 percent of seven to 24 year olds in the Mpumalanga province, which lies in the northeast, had not attended school during 2009. The report said that there had been a steady increase in attendance rates between 2002 and 2007 and a slight decline in 2009 relative to the 2007 attendance figures.

The survey also revealed that the “no fee” school system and other funding initiatives are beginning to show their effects. The government introduced “no-fee” schools in 2007 to allow learners to enrol at schools without paying tuition. Currently about 40 percent of the schools have been declared no-fee schools and the government plans to expand the no-fee schools to 60 percent over the next few years. In 2008, provinces were allocated R3.5 billion to ensure that about 5 million pupils in over 14,000 schools benefited from this program.

The percentage of learners who reported that they paid no tuition fees increased from 0.7 percent in 2002 to 44.5 percent in 2009. Provinces with the highest proportions of non-payers were: Free State (66.3 percent), Eastern Cape (65.8 percent) and Limpopo (62.2 percent).

While the no-fee system has certainly improved access to education throughout the country, many still have trouble continuing on to university because of the costs.

Malibongwe Nogemana, a 22-year-old Bachelor of Science student, dropped out of the Walter Sisulu University of Technology last year because of the lack of financial assistance. Both of his parents are unemployed and depend on the social payments they receive for two of Nogemana’s younger siblings. He could not go back to school this year because the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) rejected his application for grant funding. He says NSFAS cited a lack of funds.

“The government promised us free education, but to no avail. Instead, poor black students can’t go to university because they cannot afford high university fees,” Nogemana says. “Young people are said to be the future of every nation. But what kind of a future are we when we’re not educated and do not have skills to support ourselves, our families, our nation?” he asked.

Nogemana has now joined scores of other youth who sit at home idle. Some have resorted to crime and drugs while others binge on alcohol.

Student Funding Model Reviewed

However, a review committee set up by the higher education ministry found that the problem does not lie in inadequate funds to finance students’ studies but in the inability of universities to disburse the money allocated to deserving students. According to the committee’s findings, South African universities had failed to spend an enormous amount of money that had been allotted to them to assist poor students (R89.3 million in 2007 and another R95.5 million in 2008).

For many education experts, those conclusions are just one more piece of evidence that the problems plaguing the education system in South Africa do not stem from inadequate budget allocation and financing, but on poor spending habits, implementation, and monitoring.

In recent times, education has actually received the lion’s share of the national government budget. In this current financial year higher education and training got R23.3 billion while basic education received R127 billion. (In 2010 the government split the education department into two ministries, one responsible for schools – basic education – and the other for tertiary education).

The country’s 23 public universities received R17.5 billion in subsidies, up from R15.3 billion last year. However, universities spend a significant chunk of that amount, more than 60 percent, on staff salaries.

The review committee recommended a financial injection of R5.2 billion annually to fund the NSFAS in order to ensure that poor students access tertiary education at universities. And committee members also advocated a free education system for students who come from very poor backgrounds and that race should no longer be a factor in determining students who qualify for financial aid.

“The review committee recommends a higher education student financial aid model that progressively provides free higher education to undergraduate level students from poor and working-class communities,” the findings stated. In addition, the ruling political party, the African National Congress, resolved at its national elective conference in 2007 that free university study should be offered to poor students.

Some top educators blame the poor preparation of their students for the high dropout rate. Professor Jonathan Jansen, an education expert and vice chancellor of the University of Free State, recently told the newspaper Volksblad that the school planned to increase its entrance standards to ensure that the university becomes one of the top 200 universities in the world. The university, which is attended by 30,000 students, currently has the highest dropout rate in the country, which Jansen blames on the poor quality of the country’s basic education system.

“The country’s education system is in deep trouble, but we can’t compensate for that. If schools don’t work, the country can’t work,” he told Volksblad. Even with these obstacles, the educational authorities have kept their ambitious plans for the numbers to increase in higher education. The goal is to have 175,000 pupils pass national examinations at the end of this year and qualify for bachelor’s programs at universities. Only 105,000 pupils passed last year.

By 2014, the department wants to have 225,000 pupils passing mathematics and 165,000 passing physical science in the national examinations.


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