While “Guptagate” dominated the news over the past two weeks, the release of one of the most important reports in two decades of democracy went almost unnoticed.
The report titled “The State of Literacy Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Phase” was released just over a week ago. It was researched and compiled by the National Education and Evaluation Unit (NEEDU), an independent institution that analyses the state of schools in South Africa and identifies the factors necessary for quality schooling.
The purpose of the study was to determine why, despite government’s massive investment in education over almost twenty years, so many children are failing to achieve basic literacy and numeracy skills in the Foundation Phase (grades 1 to 3).
The report draws its conclusions from an in-depth study of 133 schools in urban areas across the nine provinces.
The findings paint a grim picture. The majority of learners in poor schools start falling behind required literacy and numeracy levels in their first year, and by the time they end the “foundation phase” in grade 3, many have effectively dropped out and will predictably fail to master the curriculum in later years. This is the main reason why around 50% of children drop out of school before they reach matric. For example, last year’s matric class started grade 1 in 2001 as a group of 1,150,637 learners but only 551,837 wrote the 2012 national senior certificate examinations.
More importantly, the report focuses on WHY this is case. There is never a simple answer to a complex question. There are many variables at work, including children’s home circumstances.
Most educational experts have known this for a long time, but the government has been in denial because most of South Africa’s under-performing teachers belong to the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), one of the largest COSATU affiliates and a pillar of support to President Jacob Zuma in his battle against Zwelinzima Vavi.
Confronting South Africa’s education crisis requires the political will to face down SADTU. The NEEDU report is path-breaking because it confronts this issue head-on. It names the elephant in the room.
It highlights how SADTU has paralysed education in some provinces, particularly in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo and is responsible for the poor discipline and the widespread collusion and nepotism in the recruitment and promotion of staff in the schools it “controls”.
The report makes a number of recommendations to tackle this problem, most importantly, the introduction of an assessment of expertise as a precondition for entry into jobs in education and strict merit-based criteria for appointments, especially senior management in schools. The report recognises that these changes will be met with resistance and states that “success depends on strong political will exercised over a sufficient period of time to entrench this new way of doing things.”
The question that arises is whether the government will now have the courage to act on the report’s recommendations, and implement measures, like merit based appointments and competency testing, which SADTU opposes.
The much (and often unfairly) maligned Angie Motshekga and her Director General Bobby Soobrayan, may well be the first leadership team at a national level that is prepared to do so. This is the real reason why SADTU is demanding their resignation.
According to the draft NEEDU Bill currently before Parliament, Minister Motshekga is obliged to table the report at the next meeting of the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) — comprising the National Minister and the nine provincial MECs — for consideration and action.
We will watch the outcome with great interest. Will the CEM have the guts to accept the diagnosis and back Minister Motshekga in taking the necessary action?
Or will they take refuge behind the misdiagnoses of the past which resulted in billions of Rands poured into misdirected interventions that often only succeeded in making education worse?
It is worthwhile briefly surveying this history to avoid repeating its mistakes.
In the early years of our democracy, the focus was (correctly) on redistributing resources to poorer schools. This happened on a huge scale. According to Professor Servaas van der Berg, by 2006, 49% of education spending on salaries reached the poorest 40% of households and non-personnel public spending on the poorest fifth of schools was roughly six times higher than spending on the richest fifth of schools. Yet, this massive shift in public spending did not result in improved outcomes.
The most bizarre attempt to “redistribute resources” was the voluntary severance package and teacher redeployment scheme, which was aimed at appeasing the teacher unions, rather than improving education. And it stripped the public school system of much of its leadership, skills and experience. For example, in KwaZulu Natal, 514 principals, 223 deputy principals, 925 heads of departments and 1465 senior teachers took voluntary severance packages during 1996/97.
The consequences for education were predictably disastrous.
The national government then turned its attention to the curriculum, with the now acknowledged failure of “Curriculum 2005”. Based on a new international fad and using American consultants, the ANC concluded that traditional “content- based” methods of teaching were the core problem. So the national department introduced outcomes based education (OBE), which placed an emphasis on the broad competencies learners should acquire at the end of the school year, without any content-based guidance for teachers on how to achieve these results. The curriculum expected teachers to have the ability to select their own teaching materials without providing any detail on the content they should teach. It also downplayed (and sometimes even dismissed) the importance of textbooks, encouraging teachers to use any materials available to them. It was a disaster. The esoteric training, based in incomprehensible education theory, and the ill-defined “curriculum outcomes” merely confused most teachers, who simply did not know what to do. And they concluded that they should not place primary emphasis on the most important function of schools: teaching children to read, write and calculate.
A full 15 years have been wasted as we attempted to correct the folly of Curriculum 2005.
Then the focus turned to teacher qualifications. The problem, said the national government, was “unqualified teachers”, which had some resonance given the fact that only half of South African teachers were actually qualified to teach. The attempt to correct this situation led to a range of part-time courses, which consumed teachers’ time in studying a range of subjects that added little to their core subject content knowledge, and gave them no practical teaching skills. Ironically, these courses are credited for the dramatic increase in education qualifications over the last two decades – today 94.4% of teachers have formal qualifications. But the actual result is a preponderance of “Life Orientation” qualifications – while maths and language education continue to deteriorate.
Then the new fad became the “Language of Learning and Teaching” without understanding the enormous complexity of “languages in transition” (where the formal language of education differs markedly from the spoken language in urban areas). There was also no recognition of the fact that the vocabulary to teach maths and science in various indigenous languages still needs to be developed. The result has been a further deterioration in learning outcomes, particularly for the poorest learners taught in their “mother tongue” which often differs profoundly from the dialect spoken in the community. These learners were even more disadvantaged when the switch to English came in Grade 4.The NEEDU report, however, highlights two interventions that may be the key to improving education outcomes in the Foundation Phase and, which are already being implemented. These are the “LitNum” Intervention of the Western Cape Education Department and Gauteng’s Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS).
The report discusses both in detail and highlights the lessons learnt from their implementation. It also calls for both to be subjected to rigorous evaluations by independent experts so that the successes and benefits of both could be incorporated into a broad systemic programme in the future.
The NEEDU report also reveals that the Western Cape Education Department’s interventions are starting to pay off. The study showed that there were only two districts in which the average quantity of writing work approached the prescribed norms. Both are in the Western Cape, which is far ahead in literacy in the foundation phase.
Much more must still be done. But at last the NEEDU report diagnoses the core problem correctly. And if the national government can summon up the courage to confront SADTU, we will be able to build sustainable education improvements into our education implementation plans. And if we do everything right, it will still take 15 years to transform most public schools into institutions delivering quality education.