Mmusi Maimane | Five ideas to fix our public education system

The writer has given five ideas that can be used to fix SA's education system.
The writer has given five ideas that can be used to fix SA's education system.
Roger Sedres

Mmusi Maimane writes that the education department has constantly inflated the matric results and more needs to be done to confront the ministry if children are going to have a chance in the 4IR economy. 


Only 29.85% of students got a mark of 50% or more in the gateway subjects of the 2019 matric results. That should have been the headline in January 2020. But it wasn't. Let's not misinform the nation when the 2020 matric results are released Monday afternoon.

We are now, once again, in the season of discussing and dissecting the matric 2020 results.

We are all familiar with the dance by now: the Department of Basic Education (DBE) will celebrate top achievers and Minister Angie Motshekga will announce a misleading pass mark based on the "foogasi" yardstick of 30% and 40% and claim that overall, there is an improvement in the quality of our basic education. No doubt, any deviations from the historic trend will be attributed to Covid-19.

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The two traditions, namely the government's announcement and the celebration of top achievers, mask the grim reality of the state of our basic education system. We understandably get caught up in the euphoria of celebrating human accomplishment, the personal stories of overcoming and the sheer brilliance that some possess, even at such a young age.

Motshekga relies on that, she joins the nation to celebrate these accomplishments, diminishing herself as the architect of the system, her political survival strategy is to focus us on the positive stories long enough for the news cycle to move on to the next focal point.

She also relies on her manipulated metrics and the cover that top performers offer her to avoid the appropriate public response to her work. Those false metrics give her good headlines and are misleading in the message they convey. A casual observer looking at figures like an 81% matric pass mark, will walk away impressed with the South African education system. Eighty-one percent sounds superb, but it's far from actual reality.

We have let this administration continuously repeat inflated pass marks, claiming they accurately reflect the number of students who passed. We need to do better and confront this ministry of incompetence if our kids are to truly have a chance in the 4IR economy. Motshekga avoids being the story but after 12 years in office, it's time that she does become the story. That headline must read: "It's time for Angie to go!"

Falsa narratives 

She has consistently peddled a false narrative about the state of our education system.

Last year, it was announced that the matric pass rate was 81.3%. Before factoring in the dropout rate of 40%, let's explore that claim with objective data. I am only going to focus on three subjects. mathematics, physical science and economics.

When one looks at the mathematics pass mark claimed by the government in 2020 it seems acceptable at 54.6% but close scrutiny tells a different story. That figure is based on this false metric of 30% being some measure of mathematics competency. We all know that this is bogus.

When one digs through the diagnostic report, the mathematics pass rate was actually 20.2%. Only 20.2% of the students who sat for the exam knew more than half of the content they learnt of 12 years of education in the public system. The figures were not much different in 2018, with only 21.7% of students passing. This is not success. It is a gross failure.

I would venture that it's not enough to simply look at how many students obtained the 50% real pass mark, we need to probe the data further. How many students obtained level 6 or level 7 or, in other words, how many students scored above 70%. When you look at that number you immediately realise why the global community says we have a skills deficit. Only 5% of the students who sat for the mathematics exam in 2019 obtained a mark of 70% or higher. That is the reality of our education system.

These poor numbers track across the other subjects. When you look at physical science, only 33.1% of students obtained a mark of 50% or more in 2019 and only 10.7% obtained a mark of 70% or more. When you look at economics, only 19.8% of students passed, and only 3.4% of students obtained a mark of 70% or more.

In addition to the grim reality painted by looking at the actual pass mark, we also need to consider the enrolment figures for these subjects. The 2011 Department of Basic Education (DBE) strategic document titled "Action Plan 2014 - towards the realisation of Schooling 2025", outlined 27 goals for the education department over a period of 14 years from 2011.

Ignoring the horrible title for this strategic document, two goals from the strategic document addressed matric outcomes that are critical to consider. Firstly, Goal 5 - increasing the number of pupils who pass mathematics and secondly, Goal 6 - increasing the number of pupils who pass physical science. Using the 2015 to 2019 data, we can determine that there has been a failure to increase the number of students who sit for the exam.

  • The number of students sitting for the mathematics exam decreased by 15.8% from 263 903 in 2015 to 222 034 in 2019.
  • The number of students sitting for the physical science exam decreased by 14.9% from 193 189 in 2015 to 164 478 in 2019.
  • The number of students sitting for the economics exam drastically decreased by 34.8% from 165 642 in 2015 to 107 940 in 2019.

From this data, it's clear that we have two chronic problems facing our public education system: declining participation in critical subjects and extremely low pass rates in those subjects when we look at them objectively and not through Angie's manipulated metrics of success. 

To change our economic trajectory, we have to offer these young people pathways to upwards social mobility; education is the only tool that we can use to create this reality. If our young people are emerging from the schooling system with such low levels of competence and comprehension, it is no wonder that they are unable to proceed with pursuing the skills that are in high demand in the 21st century economy.

The ANC government has administered 26 matric examinations since 1994. It's time for us to collectively admit that they receive the F grade.

The Freedom Charter's mantra to "open the doors of learning and to provide equal education" is simply not implemented. The hopes of the drafters of the Freedom Charter were that the evil Bantu Education system would be dismantled and replaced with a system that would truly give everyone access to any career of their choice and to pursue dreams that were denied to their parents and grandparents. 

However, that has not been the case.

Exclusion 

While the letter of the law has been abolished, the ANC has upheld the effects of the law. When you have a system that only examines 50-60 percent of the students who enrolled in Grade 1, when you have a system which does not prioritise the levels of excellence required in the 21st century economy, you effectively exclude millions of people from poor communities from meaningful employment. You confine them to poverty.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can still fix this education system and we must adopt the urgency required by the moment. The world is speeding ahead. They will not wait for South Africa to get its act together. The world also faces new challenges. This has been the lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to have the talent and capacity to deal with these challenges head on.

READ | Matric 2020 public schools not likely to net the high pass rate of IEB schools experts warn

I have some ideas that I would like to present to the South African citizenry about how we fix the mess in the Department of Basic Education.

Firstly, we must acknowledge that there is a need to change the leadership team. We cannot accomplish the necessary reforms with the team that got us into this mess in the first place. They lack the vision, creativity and the capacity to accomplish the work ahead.

Motshekga has not delivered on her own strategic goals set in 2011. She has overseen a 12-year period of underperformance. We need to bring in an education minister from outside of the fold of politics. We need to bring in administrators who have proven excellence, either in the private schooling sector or in the university sector. Some names come to mind, but I am sure we do not have a shortage of talent, only a shortage of political will.

Aside from the need for administrative change, here are five ideas that I believe will change our education outcomes if implemented diligently:

 1.      We need to increase teachers' salaries and benefits making the profession more attractive to our talented young people who have chosen the commercial sector. It is well known that we have a shortage of teachers in the STEM related subjects. We need to attract some of that talent out of the private sector and into the classroom. A young teaching core will not bring with it the historical legacies of the teaching profession and they will bring in the professional standards of the private sector.

Making the space more competitive will allow us to retire the underperforming teachers and to introduce new performance indicators that have failed previously. It will also motivate those teachers who have been overperforming under adverse conditions to keep doing excellent work. The adage goes, you get what you pay for. To truly attain teaching excellence we need to consider this.

In 2019 the total budget allocation for the DBE, the nine provincial education departments combined, was R281.2 billion. With an effective pass rate of 29.85 % across the 10 gateway subjects, this money is not being effectively used and the return on investment is inadequate. If we can attract top talent into the public schooling system and improve the overall pass rate, the effects on the economy more broadly will be exponential. We will be able to finally address the skills shortage in critical sectors. We will be able to attract foreign direct investment focused on the 4IR economy.

In his book No Rules Rules, the Netflix CEO Reed Hastings emphasises the value of hiring good people and paying them well to ensure great results. Many other management thinkers have echoed this principle and while it does come with a price tag, it is worth it overall.

2.      Establish an independent school inspectorate – the Inspector-General of Education - an office that is separate from the bureaucracy and political appointments of the department that can adjudicate school standards, teacher excellence and complaints. This office will operate in a similar way to the Office of the Public Protector. In the Netherlands, they have an office called the Dutch Inspectorate of Education and it is a critical part of their educational success. The office of the Dutch Inspectorate of Education performs the following tasks:  

  • It stimulates schools and educational institutions to maintain and improve the quality of education they offer.
  • It assesses the quality of the education of individual educational institutes and the education system as a whole in the Netherlands and its developments.
  • It communicates in an accessible way with all its target groups and stakeholders.
  • It reports to the public.

Such an office, established in South Africa and accounting directly to Parliament, will help us deal with the issues of education corruption and quality control. Looking at recent events, it is clear that the public's money is not being prudently spent by the DBE. Three examples should suffice to illustrate this:

  • The Gauteng education department returned almost R1 billion to the Treasury in the 2018/19 financial year.
  • R 431 million was wastefully and corruptly spent by the Gauteng department on the fumigation of classrooms, which had been unused for months, in the name of Covid-19 prevention.
  • R82 million was spent building the Mayibuye Primary School that was ultimately deemed unsuitable and unsafe to open its doors.

These are not trivial amounts, and they could have been directed towards priority issues to improve the quality of learning and teaching. 

3.      We need to give all pupils access to top of the range computing education. In order to accomplish this, we need to build computer centres that can be shared by multiple schools in a community on a rotational basis.

This is the best way to pool resources, provide adequate security and make sure there is the right level of staffing talent to serve the communities.

We are not moving fast enough in our rollout of computer science at high school level. With these computing centres, learners will be able to advance their coding skills. They will also be able to learn how to create digital content and how to use complex software like final cut pro, logic, adobe illustrator and adobe photoshop.

 4.      To boost participation and performance in STEM subjects, we must consider financially rewarding pupils for top performances. Young people respond well to incentives and we must use behavioural economics and game theory to our favour to keep the levels of participation and performance consistent throughout the course the five years that are spent in high school. These incentives can be distributed periodically upon the completion of online tests. This will also allow us to be able to track teacher competence in real time and to take remedial actions if any are necessary.

5.      We need to remove the scourge of violence, bullying and gang-related activities in our schools. That will require increasing the levels and quality of security at our schools. There have been too many cases of student stabbings and fights with teachers to ignore. The learning environment must be one that is free from any violence and disruption, it must be a place where students want to spend more time - not less. It must be place that makes teachers feel safe and not defensive.

In addition to increasing security for the purpose of making the students and teachers feel safe, security must be increased to reduce levels of school vandalism and theft of school property by criminal elements in the community. Unfortunately, we live in a crime-riddled society and schools are not exempt from the attacks of criminals. While politicians have found creative ways to milk money from the education system, they have ignored the issue of security.

This year, let us have a different conversation about the state of our education system. Let us not be distracted by the DBE as we celebrate the individual accomplishments of our brilliant pupils who overcame a system that was stacked against them. Let us clearly call for a new leadership team in our education department and begin to discuss ideas that can get this vital department back on track.

 With an annual cost of more than R280 billion, with over 24 000 schools under its supervision and with 13 million pupils in the system, we cannot afford anything but robust scrutiny of our education system.

Our kids deserve better, and our nation cannot survive 27 more years of this miseducation.

- Mmusi Maimane is the chief activist for One South Africa Movement.

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