Past, present and future:

| September 6, 2010

A broad look at some elements of Action Plan 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025, with Professor Sarah Gravett, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).


Professor Gravett, what is your overall opinion of the planned changes to basic education in South Africa?

Let us say at the outset that Minister Motshekga has been willing to admit that mistakes have been made in the past. For that alone, we should applaud her. With
her department, and the input of other important groups, she has come up with a comprehensive plan to address many aspects of basic education in this country;
and she has done so in an atmosphere of scepticism, which is not easy.

I think the plan – and let us remember that many elements have not yet been finalised – contains interesting and important suggestions and proposals, but
it will stand or fall depending on implementation and accountability. Good plans have been put on the table in this country before, but failed because
there was insufficient communication, or because they were muddied by misinterpretation as instructions devolved from the central Department of Education to the provinces, the district authorities and finally to the schools. All the stakeholders need to understand their responsibilities and roles and exactly what the plan entails.

Surely these factors are by now self-evident?

We would all hope so, but the fact remains that, in the build-up to the most current strike, more than one South African Democratic Teacher’s Union (SADTU) member made reckless statements suggesting a lack of care for the school children of this country. That is shocking in light of the fact that all the major unions signed a joint agreement last year pledging to stamp out unprofessional conduct, and to commit to the improvement of education. But there are many people in the Department of Education who are good thinkers, and who are really passionate about education.

A positive aspect of the plan is government’s understanding that things don’t change overnight. We are all anxious to see real improvement, but we must rather focus on solid, long-term plans and ensure that they are well implemented, in order to see results.

You are passionate about early childhood development. How is the plan going to address this area?

A key focus of Action Plan 2014 is the realisation that, in order to achieve long-term and whole-system improvement, we need to start with the Foundation Phase. Research indicates that Grade 3 literacy and numeracy scores are very good predictors of whether or not a child will one day go onto university. The challenge in this regard is that we have a great shortage of teachers in this critical phase.

The Minister has also laid out proposals related to teaching and learning materials.

Yes. Another focus area deals with the supply of workbooks to every learner to improve academic performance. I think it’s a very good idea if the workbooks are
introduced in a way that gives supportive guidance to all schools, and tells them what they should be doing.

But the approach could be potentially problematic. Over-prescription often leads to symbolic compliance. Also – good learning materials do not guarantee good teaching. The key is knowledgeable and committed teachers. Let me illustrate what I mean by using the example of OBE (outcomes-based education). Good schools extracted the useful principles from OBE to improve what they were already doing. They were able to move beyond the curriculum, to be innovative and to design wonderfully creative and resourceful lessons. In many other schools, however, where teachers were often insecure and poorly supported, the message they
received was “Everything you’ve done up until now was not really good practice”. This led to teaching not improving, but deteriorating. Also, teachers were not
well prepared to deal with a new curriculum, either.
Here at UJ – and we were not alone – we heard teachers complaining about the ‘microwave training’ they received! That superficial approach was coupled with the fact that the curriculum initially was complicated and full of jargon. Later on, with the advent of the Revised National Curriculum Statements (RNCS), that issue was addressed, but by that time too many people – including the trainers – were confused.

The modified curriculum, we are told – and, by default then, the workbooks – will contain very specific guidelines, clearly mapping out what should be taught to whom and by when, using simple language. This is potentially transformative on a massive scale. But again – it depends on the quality of the workbooks and whether teachers are sufficiently knowledgeable and committed to use the workbooks constructively.

There is excitement about the plan to relieve schools of a massive administrative burden. Can you comment?

Here at UJ, as at teacher training institutions around the country, we welcome the idea of streamlining the administrative overload for schools. We must learn from the past. In effective schools, teachers added the bureaucratic demands to their work, but they continued teaching. In weaker schools, teaching time was eroded because teachers used classroom time to fill out the required administrative forms. It was symbolic compliance only.

What about proposed changes to the language policy?

The issue of languages is also promising in theory. For thousands of children, English will be introduced in Grade 1 as an additional language. Previously, many young learners were familiar with mother-tongue instruction until Grade 4, when the switch-over to English occurred, which had, in many cases, a detrimental effect on learner
performance. My worry, however, is that in the schools where say, early education is given in Sotho, will teachers be able to teach effectively in English also?

Will the Action Plan kick off smoothly in 2011, or is that too ambitious?

I think it’s important to be ambitious. To succeed, we need very good planning, excellent communication and a lot of commitment.

Supporting teachers is close to your heart. Will they buy in to the plan?

We all know that poor teacher morale and change fatigue are some of our biggest challenges right now. We must remember that teachers all over the country read about proposed changes in the newspaper just as we do, and the implication there is that mixed messages can confuse things. The department needs to ensure that all teachers, wherever they are, get the right information about proposed dates and processes as soon as possible. The department has started with this with a newsletter, “Curriculum
News”. This is a good initiative.

Beyond negotiations, what else can you say on the issue of the strike?

The teacher development plan (another plan which will soon be on the table) is part of government’s larger vision, and includes issues like attrition, better pay,
and more support. Again, though, these things won’t happen overnight. The role of school principals in this regard is crucial, because they support teachers. Teachers are the backbone of the education system. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, so we need to invest in our teachers.

Your final thoughts?

Those who fiercely criticise the education system – and we are all guilty of that every now and then – tend to forget where we come from. We forget about the enormous
backlog that existed in many schools with regard to infrastructure, we forget that the majority of our children come from povertystricken households: they come to  school hungry, and they have inadequate support structures at home. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts. We need committed teachers in classrooms; school principals who are creating conditions conducive to good teaching and learning; parental, union and civil society support; and a government that can deliver on its promises.

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Category: Spring 2010 Edition

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