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Three reasons why we are failing

By Trevor Manuel

While education has always been a high priority for this government, since 2009 it has become the single highest priority, or apex priority as it is called.

This is partly in recognition of the importance of education. It is also partly in recognition of the fact that we have not made as much progress in improving the quality of education, especially in poor communities, as we would have liked. We need to highlight a few of our challenges. They include:

  • serious gaps in the teaching of Maths and Science
  • low levels of literacy and numeracy in our schools
  • low competence and skills levels of at least half of our teachers
  • poor infrastructure in some areas
  • poor teaching and learning in some schools
  • low grasp of English
All is not well

The impact of these challenges cannot be underestimated. They continue to impact negatively on our learners, especially in the area of acquisition of skills that can and must assist in growing the economy of our young democracy.

All is not well in our education system and all is not well with the state of professionalism in teaching in our country. When President Zuma stands up and promotes the ‘three T’s of education – time, textbooks and teaching – does it mean the same to all 400 000 of our teachers? When President Zuma commented in 2009 about the fact that township schools teach an average of three-and-a-half hours a day, whereas former model C schools teach about five hours a day, were all 400 000 teachers listening?

When President Zuma announced last year that new workbooks would be delivered on time, were all the officials in all provincial education departments listening?

We cannot be satisfied with our performance

I know that we are making progress in improving Matric results. I know that teachers and professionals operate in very difficult environments. I know that we inherited an absolute mess. But despite all of that, we cannot be satisfied with our performance, at least in the aggregate. Many township schools are still failing to provide the most basic teaching environment.

Maths and literacy scores are low by international and African standards, even in some of our leafy suburbs. Average literacy scores at Grade 3 level are higher in Kenya than for the top 20% of schools by income in South Africa.

The role of teacher unions

With a few exceptions, the schooling system is failing the majority of children in our country. I wish to cite three reasons why, in my opinion, we are failing. First, in a developmental state, surely the role of teaching unions cannot just be about salary increases. Surely it is the role of teaching unions to promote quality education, to promote time on task, to support weaker schools, to provide professional advice and counsel to poorly performing teachers, and to act against those who sully the good name of this profession?

On the contrary, in several areas, teacher unions are part of the problem, jostling for power over promotions and acting to undermine centres of excellence. Yes, trade unionism is possible in a profession. Many professions around the world have strong trade unions that represent their members in ways that do not undermine the professional ethic of teachers. I put it to you today that, in South Africa, we have not found that medium. And so what should be a healthy conversation in a developmental state about teaching quality in the poorest of schools always degenerates into a fight about resources, about politics and about power. Nothing should be more important
that the quality of teaching, especially in poor communities.

There are simply no excuses that deserve to be tolerated.

Management of provincial education departments

Second, some provincial education departments are run in ways that frustrate the best efforts of schools, instead of complementing them. In several provinces, school books have still not been delivered this year. In at least one province and in several school districts, the school feeding scheme has collapsed due to some sort of mismanagement.

In many school districts, promotions have become contested, undermining the spirit of rewarding quality teaching. In many cases – not all, but in many cases – school districts are bureaucratic post offices, raising the regulatory burden on principals and teachers without adding any value to the quality of teaching and learning.

Parent and community involvement

The third set of problems that we have to resolve is to provide the appropriate channels for communities and parents to support schools and principals. While we have the legislative framework for community involvement in education, this is often paid lip service to in practice. The problem lies in several quarters – with schools, with the Department and with parents themselves.

In many areas, the legislated powers that school governing boards have are undermined by district decisions on which teacher to hire or who to promote. Resources are often managed more inefficiently by the bureaucracy than by the schools themselves. In some cases, parents also fail to understand their roles. They make huge sacrifices, paying significant sums of money either in direct or indirect schooling costs to get their children into the best school that they can afford, but then play little role in the education of their child or in the running of the school. Education cannot be outsourced – it starts at home, and the home environment is critical to the performance of
learners. In fact, several studies reflect that it is the most important factor that determines learning outcomes.

Reform plans look promising

Our government is excited by the plans contained in the Delivery Agreement, signed by Minister Motshekga and the President last October; the Action Plan to 2014:  Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025; and the Implementation Plan for Teacher Education and Development. I want to commend the Minister of Basic Education for
introducing standardised annual assessments in literacy and numeracy. Government has been trying to do this for years, but has not succeeded until your efforts in the past two years.

However, we must build on this so that the results go to parents, and we can begin to benchmark schools to increase accountability in the schooling system. I believe that this reform can help increase the information that parents have, and could help parents interact more meaningfully with teachers and their children. Through the Accelerated School Infrastructure Development Initiative, we will be able to improve safety and basic functionality of our schools by, among other things, eradicating mud and unsafe structures.

We have adopted decisive steps efficiently to strengthen literacy and numeracy skills, as well as teaching at the Foundation levels through the Workbooks Project. Basic
Education began rolling out the workbooks to learners in Grades 1 to 6 from January 2011.

This is an extract from a speech delivered by Trevor Manuel, Minister in the Presidency: National Planning Commission, at the 2011 National Teaching Awards Ceremony.


Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2011

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