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reading and reviews

| November 16, 2020 | 0 Comments

Title: South African Schooling: The
Enigma of Inequality: A Study of the
Present Situation and Future Possibilities
Editors: Nic Spaull and Jonathan D.Jansen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-3-030-18810-8
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

Twenty-five years into democracy, inequality still dogs South African schooling

I am always a proponent of giving teachers the time to study and discuss current educational research in staff development sessions.

I also champion resources published by Oxford University Press (OUP) because these texts are current, inclusive, accessible, and, I would add, invaluable to teachers. As OUP editors state upfront in the 10th volume in the Policy Implications of Research in Education series, entitled South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality: A Study of the Present Situation and Future Possibilities:

In education, as in other fields, there are often significant gaps between research knowledge and current policy and practice. While there are many reasons for this gap, one that stands out is that… practitioners may simply not know about important research findings because these findings are not published in forums aimed at them.

Given these remarks, schools would do well to obtain copies of said volume 10. The two editors, Nic Spaull and Jonathan D. Jansen are well known to many people in the education sector. Both provide regular and incisive commentary on the state of schooling in South Africa.

Some teacher readers may balk at the thought of reading another book about inequality, but I would like to remind them that is a moral imperative for all South Africans to confront a current brutal reality, an aspect of which is described here by Lebogang Montjane, the executive director of ISASA: ‘The fact that children in our schools are still experiencing kinds of micro-aggression more than 25 years after democracy is of grave concern.’1

A complex landscape

Spaull and Jansen specifically use the word enigma in this book’s title. Others may use similar terms, such as conundrum or riddle when attempting to understand education in this country. Call the schooling system what you will, after reading the carefully chosen and reviewed chapters that make up this volume, teacher readers will find themselves enriched and able to interrogate some of their own beliefs and to ask questions about given narratives. Teachers, after all, are the ones at the chalkface, navigating their way through the paradoxical education landscape.

In his introductory chapter entitled ‘Equity: A Price Too High to Pay?’, Spaull offers readers a way to start thinking more clearly, stating that:

Whether intended or not, our particular journey into democracy… has not cured or curbed extreme inequality. Instead, the ordering principles of the country have shifted from a racial hegemony to a market-oriented democracy…the de facto result of this was that the unequal two-tiered [education] system of apartheid remained intact with the discriminating principle mutating from an exclusive focus on race to one that is now inclusive of class.

What’s it all about?

Foregrounding the other chapters in the book, Spaull goes on to say: ‘While the ‘two-tiered education system’ serves as helpful narrative short-hand, the empirical realities are slightly more nuanced than this and are important to understand.’ Let teachers therefore undergo a close reading of the other 18 chapters in the book that deal variously with the issues of educational outcomes and inequality; equity through policy over a fixed time span; educational funding and equity; curriculum reform and learner performance in the quest for equality; language policy and practice and inequality in education; early grade reading in South Africa; mathematics achievement and inequality; teachers’ knowledge and inequality; learner’s written work and the quality thereof; gender inequality in South African schools; teacher development and inequality; race, class and inequality in education; school leadership and management; how to reduce learning inequalities and lessons from the Jika iMfundo campaign.

Early childhood development

It is perhaps chapter five of South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality: A Study of the Present Situation and Future Possibilities that moved me the most. Authored by Michaela Ashley-Cooper, Lauren-Jayne van Niekerk and Eric Atmore, it is entitled ‘Early Childhood Development in South Africa: Inequality and Opportunity’. It charts the disturbing lack of attention paid to the most vulnerable members of our society, very young children. In fact, these stories of neglect are commonplace. Consider, for example, an article that appeared in September 2020 in Grocott’s Mail in Makhanda (Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape entitled ‘Sewage spill floods children’s home again.’2

Journalist Susan Maclennan reported that:

Fourteen children [all under the age of 10] living at the Ikhaya Losizo foster homes in Joza [township] had to spend the weekend indoors thanks to a massive sewage spill that flooded the grounds on Saturday 5 September. House mothers says they’ve lost count of the number of times sewage has spewed from an inspection cover close to the complex. Staff say no maintenance is carried out on the line, and so it keeps getting blocked and overflowing. Faeces, used toilet paper, sanitary towels and condoms are spread across the children’s back yard, and liquid sewage has formed a lake that is almost knee-deep in places.

Drawing on popular and well-founded research, AshleyCooper et al cite the importance of quality early childhood development (ECD) programmes, saying: ‘International research has consistently illustrated the effects of various forms of ECD programming on child outcomes, including significant gains in cognition, language development and communication skills, and socio-emotional development.’ And yet, continue the authors, in South Africa in 2019, ‘There are… approximately 3 756 040 children under six… not in any form of early learning provisioning…it is clear that the wealthier a child’s family is, the more likely that child is to attend an early learning programme.’ The authors conclude that: ‘The reasons for these [ECD] inequalities are many, including South Africa’s Apartheid sic history; resulting in gross infringements of the basic and constitutional rights of South Africa’s children. ‘ In a later chapter, Jansen declares that: ‘Research shows that it is the unequal quality of these early interventions that produce unequal outcomes that remain so over the course of the 12 years of education.’

After discussing these facts, teacher readers can move on to consider how COVID-19 Has exacerbated ECD inequality in South Africa and around the world. The Early Child Education Journal editors, based in Maryland in the US, put out a call for the submission of articles on this very issue in July 2020,3 stating that: ‘Specific to early childhood education, this international health crisis has precipitated unprecedented, sweeping, and dramatic changes in the lives of children and their families, preservice and in-service teachers of young children, and early childhood teacher educators. Worldwide, the Covid-19 has… pushed the early childhood education system to the verge of collapse.’

We urgently need moral clarity and political will

Teacher readers are also sure to find chapter 13 – ‘Teacher Development and Inequality in Schools: Do We Now Have a Theory of Change? by Yael Shalem and Francine De Clercq – significant. The following statement could result in robust debate: ‘What is still missing [in South Africa] is a robust debate backed by research on how to reduce gaps in teacher knowledge through appropriate and differentiated teacher development.’

Let us leave the final word to Jansen. He says:

That the South African school system struggles with the legacy of apartheid is clear. That there are policy choices and fiscal capacity within government to alter that legacy are equally evident. That there is also the moral clarity and political commitment to act on the knowledge available to reduce inequality in school and society remains to be seen.


  1. See, for example:
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Category: Spring 2020

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