There is no education bogeyman

2010-08-20 00:00

THE figures are coming out on the Outcomes-based Education (OBE) generation. Take our children starting off in Grade 1 13 years ago, with some justifiable hope in their eyes. Just over seven percent of them got a university entrance pass in 2009. Only half of this seven percent will pass first year and most of the rest will fail a good couple of years before getting a degree, if current trends are anything to go by. Under half of this vanishing small minority will be black.

As an education academic in 2008, I thought I knew all the answers why this was the case. When a research bid by the provincial Treasury Department was advertised in the Sunday papers asking for a study on how to improve the quality of education in KwaZulu-Natal, the School of Education and Development at the University of KwaZulu-­Natal jumped at the opportunity. What we found exposed my ignorance and naivety.

The man behind the bid was the head of department in the KZN Treasury, S’miso Magagula. Meeting him after we were awarded the bid was illuminating. He had first-hand experience of rural education in northern KwaZulu-Natal and wanted to make a difference.

From a Treasury perspective, he was acutely aware of how much money was being spent on education and he wanted to look for ways to improve the performance of education. Jay Naidoo, an experienced educationalist seconded to Treasury for a number of reasons, was appointed as our project supervisor.

It’s taken a long time to analyse lessons, tests and interviews from 40 schools, 1 000 teacher questionnaires, 100 principal questionnaires, consult with all the major role players, synthesise all the current databases and educational research, but we now have far more insight into the difficulties facing education in KZN and what to do about it. As my friends often mock me for saying, the answer is “complex” and takes us far beyond the current “death of OBE” cry.

The first point is that there is no villain of the piece. As I write, a teacher strike is happening, but Sadtu cannot be blamed for the poor performance of teachers. I know the press is littered with salacious tales of principals with mattresses in their offices, of drunken teachers not arriving on time and then knowing less than their pupils, of a department that is corrupt, inefficient and unable to deliver a textbook to a school.

The truth is, we have extensively met and engaged with the KZN Department of Education (DoE), Sadtu, principals and teachers, and mostly we have found committed individuals who are trying their best in difficult circumstances to improve the quality of education. There isn’t anyone to finger as the bogeyman responsible for the chaos.

The second point is just as unfashionable. Those responsible for educational reform over the past 16 years have actually got a lot right and across the world we are not laughed at for the failure of OBE but celebrated for our achievements, especially in our attempt to ensure education for all. In comparison with the rest of Africa we have more children (especially girls) in our system from Grade 1 to PhD, feed more children healthy meals (often grown, distributed and cooked by woman co-operatives), have a pro-poor funding policy where the poorest schools get the most funding, and an extensive legal framework to buttress social justice efforts. We have seriously engaged with addressing the damage wreaked by apartheid in education and continue to search ways to increase the effort.

The third point only comes into view if a long-term comparative perspective is taken. Countries that have successfully emerged from a discriminatory colonial past and now have internationally competitive educational systems took around 35 years to get there.

Three phases are evident. In the first there is a struggle to rid the system of its inherited discrimination, racism and unequal funding. This entails setting up a new legal framework, new governance structures and new symbolic structures that mark a difference from old to new. On average, this takes 15 years. We have taken 16 and given that apartheid was one of the most entrenched and systemic discriminatory systems of the 20th century, this is fairly impressive.

The second phase sets up minimal levels of performance and quality throughout the system, from the pupils and teacher to the principal, the school, the circuit, district, province and country. This is the current project Angie Motshekga has embarked on and this is what lies underneath the more dramatic stories of the death of OBE. It’s not about death, it’s about ensuring that a simple, clear and explicit educational structure is set up that everyone can understand, learn in and be assessed on. This is the real story in education at the moment and it is a momentous one that should be celebrated and taken forward. Part of this will inevitably be the dramatic exposure of those within the system who are not keeping to these minimal standards, and our press will carry these stories far and wide.

But we also have to carry the other story, the one that opens us to the very real struggle across the system to ensure that all our children are participating in educational structures that provide them with the skills, attitudes and knowledge to function in modern society.

We have made mistakes but it is not clear that these mistakes could have been avoided at the time. In a world that stepped dramatically out of apartheid and into freedom there was a very real need to ensure that this transformation carried through into all spheres of South African life. OBE symbolised this freedom and was diametrically opposed, point by point, to everything apartheid education stood for. It was born out of hope, idealism and a belief that anything was possible. Those who stood against OBE (often for good educational reasons) were brushed aside in the rush to embrace the new and opposite of what had gone before. To stand back now with the benefit of hindsight and point to how catastrophic OBE was is to forget just what it meant to be liberated. There could be no half measures then. We had to throw ourselves into the brave new world with brave new ideas. It is only when this idealism exhausts itself against the intractable livedness of normal, everyday educational life in a post-colonial world that one is able to formulate a response that considers a less glorious path of minimal standard. This is where we now stand.

But knowing the broad sweep of where our current educational processes are taking us is not enough when dealing with the real struggles that still face us in the province. The Treasury project has isolated four key areas that can make a substantial difference. The first is grappling with the serious refusal of parents, teachers and pupils to stay with mother-tongue instruction, especially Zulu, for long enough to establish a basic conceptual vocabulary in the language most comfortable for thought. We need to ensure that primary schools across the province offer a solid start to academic concepts in Zulu, while also teaching English as an additional language. The second area is enforcing a basic set of performance conditions for principals and teachers that are adhered to. The simple act of ensuring teachers arrive on time and go to class radically improves poorly performing school results. Thirdly, we have to bolster the ability of the KZN DoE to work at district and circuit level. DoE officials need to get to schools that are underperforming and intervene. By national and international standards, our districts are underresourced. Fourth, we need to boost the data-capturing and analysis mechanisms to enable better feedback to the system as a whole, and to schools in particular. Language, teaching, departmental structure and feedback systems are leverage points that will enable a general improvement across the educational system and assist the Department of Basic Education’s initiative to simplify and make more explicit the educational system as a whole.

• Dr Wayne Hugo is based in the School of Education and Development, UKZN.

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