What to do about the schooling crisis in SA

2010-01-15 00:00

THE week that schools reopen, only days after the release of the Grade 12 National Senior Certificate results, is an opportune time to review Graeme Bloch’s book on South African schooling.

With daily headlines either celebrating a sliver of achievers or ­condemning declining pass rates and “lazy” teachers, almost everyone knows there is a crisis in South African education, but not much more.

In less than 200 pages, Bloch not ­only tries to outline the nature of the South African education crisis, its ­origins and consequences, but he also tries to present a plan for sorting out the mess we are in. It is based entirely on a range of studies conducted on the education system, and thus provides a synthesis account rather than new research. Readers familiar with educational research will not find startling new insights, but a clearly written and accessible summary, while those who are interested in what is going on in the education system have a useful starting point for unpacking the complexities of our ongoing crisis.

Bloch will be familiar to readers ­interested in education as he has become a regular commentator on matters educational because of his position as education policy analyst for the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA). The DBSA sponsored the process of developing a “road map” for improving education in 2008 and much of this book leads toward the conclusions arrived through that process.

But Bloch is not your average ­banker commenting on the horrors of our system from the boardrooms of Gauteng. He is very much an insider to the politics of education in South Africa and has impeccable “struggle credentials”, having been part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) in the eighties and early nineties. This perspective comes through in the book, in that he emphasises how much the apartheid system and resistance to it has continually to be seen as a root cause of the crisis. The second chapter is devoted to describing the scars from the past that have led to the crisis.

But what is the nature of the crisis in education? While the press and general public tend to focus primarily on the exit point of the schooling ­system, the focus on the 40% failure rate hides much deeper problems across the system. The actual throughput data from Grade 1 to Grade 12 suggests that a sizeable number never finish school and don’t get to matric.

Internationally benchmarked tests show that at Grade 3 and Grade 6 level we are performing very badly in literacy and numeracy, even when compared to our poorest neighbours in the region. Failure rates and dropout rates at colleges and universities are equally worrying and employers complain about technical skills shortages and lack of basic employability dispositions. There is hardly an ­aspect of the system that is not problematic, and our response has been to develop more and better policies that perennially have unintended consequences that heighten the crisis rather than address it.

The title of Bloch’s book comes from the chapter that attempts to explain how the various factors from South Africa’s history and contemporary ­sociopolitical situation combine to create the toxic mix that is our education system.

Bloch emphasises again the legacies of the past, but also looks at the consequences of the strategies employed in the struggle against the apartheid system. He then highlights the central role of the teachers and, crucially, he is very critical of the role teacher unions have played. By ­fashioning themselves primarily as labour unions, they have focused too narrowly on conditions of service matters and have not been central enough in the development of the teachers as professionals. And unions have been largely silent on unprofessional conduct among their members.

Bloch then goes on to highlight the failures of the state to manage effectively, and overlays this with the social conditions of poverty in so many ­communities. These combine as the ingredients of the mix (along with race, racism and language) to create our poisonous brew.

Bloch tries to balance this depressing account with acknowledgement that the government has managed to get some things right. Money is being spent to redress inequalities, teachers are being trained, access has been enhanced and so forth. And there are accounts of committed people and excellent practices throughout the system. But these positive achievements are so overshadowed by the wider account of the crisis that it does little to cheer up the reader.

Finally, the book outlines what is to be done. And here it is underwhelming. Perhaps it is because the solutions are fairly obvious: get teachers to be at school, on time and teaching; train teachers to be better at their jobs; test more; focus on key skills; strengthen management; and create a social compact on education. These are the types of interventions that have been ongoing on a small and large scale throughout the system over the past 20 years. And yet they have made little difference. We have had endless workshops, consultations and new policies.

It is not clear from Bloch’s book what needs to be done differently in order to have a greater impact. Nor is it obvious what we should do to ­develop a social compact. Bloch points to the successes of corporate social investment and nongovernmental organisations, and he highlights the shifts in political discourse in the African National Congress as positive signs, but the sea change in mind-set he desires is not likely to be achieved through more workshops and conferences.

Perhaps that is all that can be done. If we know the answers, then we need to work progressively to get it right. If that is the case, then Bloch’s contribution is to make more of the general citizenry aware and add to the development of a social movement. But while I would agree that there is no panacea, I am not convinced that we really have understood what is at the heart of our crisis and how we address it in a way that makes a real difference. Bloch’s book is an important starting point for thinking about schooling, but there is a lot more thinking to be done before we can confidently declare that we know how to fix the system.


• Professor Volker Wedekind is deputy dean: Continuing Education and Mixed Mode Delivery in the Faculty of ­Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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