OPINION | South Africa’s race towards the UN’s goal on quality education

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As seven South African schools prepare to showcase their teaching approaches at the inaugural World Education Week, Jeremy Gibbon, the programme director at the Jakes Gerwel Fellowship, contemplates South Africa's progress towards the UN's fourth Sustainable Development Goal on quality education.

Seven South African schools are preparing to present their pedagogical approaches at the inaugural World Education Week (WEW) this week. 

As one of the world's biggest online education gatherings, WEW's mission is to accelerate the achievement of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) on quality education. The conference provides a virtual platform for teachers from 100 schools around the world to collectively work towards promoting inclusive and equitable education.

The Jakes Gerwel Fellowship (JGF) - a full university scholarship that nurtures top pupils to become expert teachers - has partnered with WEW, as the South African country partner, to assist local schools with the facilitation of their online events.

The Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately, but understandably, focused the narrative around South Africa's education system on modalities and tools of learning - digitisation, devices and data. We live in an unequal society where only about 20% of pupils and their teachers have access to the necessary technologies for this kind of emergency remote teaching.

A minority of teachers have had the privilege and experience to grapple with an understanding of digital pedagogy and how to teach online in a meaningful way that engages pupils. With time, we will move towards a more blended teaching model that involves online and face-to-face teaching, with specifically designed digital learning resources.

But for now, the national lockdown has also revealed the extent to which schooling plays a key supportive role for many children through feeding schemes and providing a relatively safe environment within communities.


There is a tendency to criticise the Department of Education and while there is much reason for concern, it is important to recognise some areas of success. There have been gains made by the government post-1994 that have created a certain degree of stability within the education sector.

While numerous issues impact girls' education, there is not a significant difference between boy-child and girl-child school attendance rates within South Africa as may been seen elsewhere across Africa.

Similarly, while near 100% primary school attendance is an immense success, we will need to adopt a "No Child Left Behind" outlook, especially once we fully emerge from lockdown. Past experiences from other countries that have dealt with similar emergencies illustrate that it is often marginalised youth that do not return to school.

But none of these successes refer to quality education, as per the aim of SDG4. They all refer to the basic underpinnings of a functioning society that is trying to work in a highly unequal environment.

The government recognised that much of the initial teacher education was not meeting minimum standards which led to the introduction of the Minimum Requirements for Teacher Education Qualifications (MRTEQ). As with many other sectors of society in South Africa, the challenge remains not in the policy, but rather its rightful implementation.

The dawn of democracy saw many teacher training colleges being moved into university education departments with the intention of professionalising the field. But rather than focusing on initial teacher qualifications, these departments had traditionally focused more on research, philosophy, sociology and curriculum studies. The transition to effective initial teacher education programmes was slow.

As a result, many foundation phase teachers qualified without a comprehensive pedagogy for  teaching children to read. Indeed, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) that was published in 2016 identified that 78% of South African pupils were unable to read for meaning in their own language.

Furthermore, colonial and apartheid legacies of using English as the preferred language of teaching and learning continues to impact policy decades later. Despite the fact that the majority of South Africans are multilingual, English still dominates the classroom and the cognitive value of multilingual engagement is underestimated and unappreciated.

Many of the poor low learning outcomes we observe have more to do with language than any lack of intellectual ability.

Inequality, poverty and hunger

While many factors that cannot be easily controlled impact on the quality of education - such as inequality, poverty and hunger, as well as violence and trauma in communities, among others - there is one factor that plays a crucial role, and that is the quality of the teacher.

Meta-analyses of learning outcomes, as a measure of quality education, highlight the role of the teacher as much more important than many other factors.

And although there are a number of other key factors within our control - such as policy framework, school leadership, curriculum, collaboration and technology - no education system can outperform the quality of its teachers.

It requires hard work and long-term commitment, but it is the only sustainable way to improve the overall quality of our education system. You cannot merely do it through policy or iPads, especially as technology only amplifies the abilities or inabilities of a teacher.

READ | Analysis: Nine million hungry children - We ask Section27 five questions about school feeding scheme

Teaching as a profession in South Africa has among the lowest Admission Point Scores (APS) of any degree course at university. This sends out the message to pupils that even if they cannot do anything else, they can become a teacher. We choose to challenge this and advocate that only our best should be allowed to become teachers and have the privilege of educating our children.

At the JGF, which is funded through the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment, we advocate for the value of the teaching profession alongside other high-profile careers, such as medicine, law, engineering and accounting.

Our thorough selection methodology and competency framework identifies high potential pupils to become expert teachers and educational leaders. The programme also provides extensive mentoring and leadership development to nurture teachers who will embrace innovation and lead change.

Subject matter experts

We support our fellowship candidates through an undergraduate degree in their chosen teaching subjects, so that they may become subject matter experts. A maths teacher should inspire pupils because they have a passion for mathematics beyond the curriculum - in how to apply integral calculus to design cold drink cans or apply statistics to Covid-19-related graphs that will impact governmental policy.

Our fellowship candidates also develop pedagogical content knowledge about how to teach the content because if the world's best historian does not know how to teach the history content, they are not a great teacher. A focus on "Learning to Learn" also helps students become metacognitive of their own learning processes.

We also believe that numerous aspects around the individual's disposition help to make them a good teacher - their emotional intelligence, resilience, mental health and interesting personality quirks. We do not merely look for good teachers but rather unusual changemakers.

Fellowship graduates do not change education in their third year of study, while doing their PGCE, or as a new teacher; this is a 15- to 20-year theory of change that sees them go on within a collaborative community to effect significant systemic change in education.

There is unanimous support across South Africa for the vision of the SDG4 to deliver quality education. We know how to achieve it, we simply need the collective effort. We need to make tough decisions around resource allocation, how to train and develop teachers, and transform our education system for social justice, so that it is no longer a marker for the continued perpetuation of inequality.

- Jeremy Gibbon is the programme director at the Jakes Gerwel Fellowship

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