The Department of Basic Education has noted the recent set of reports on South Africa’s school system released by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE).
The pervasive tone throughout the CDE reports is one of outrage and alarm, which runs a (foreseeable) risk that many readers would assume that the South African school system must be in a condition of deterioration. The facts, in contrast, clearly point to improvements against all relevant metrics of education system performance.
The reports, authored by CDE research director Dr Stefan Schirmer and policy analyst Rehan Visser draws, have missed an opportunity to inform the readers about the developments in the basic sector. The sector was not invited to respond or at least to provide information on work being done to address the challenges raised in the reports. This means the reports are one-sided and overtaken, in some parts, by work done up to now.
Notably the CDE reports draws in large part on the data, research and information made available and published by the DBE and then, mischievously, describes the situation as a “silent crisis”. Furthermore, any underlying value in the CDE’s analysis and recommendations on education policy are unfortunately undermined by the strong politically charged stance taken. The CDE contend that we have a “weak president”, and call for the removal of the Minister, the DG and the leadership team within the department.
In another political move, the CDE reports weave a narrative of “state capture” onto our education system, going back to the Ministerial Task Team report of 2016 dealing with corruption relating to school-based appointment processes. The appropriation of the language of “state capture” into the education space is unfortunate and inappropriate, given that “state capture” has a particular reference to a serious problem our country has experienced, and applying it inappropriately empties it of its value.
The Ministerial Task Team report of 2016 dealt mainly with school-level instances of corruption in the form of bribery for posts, so the language of state capture is not appropriate. Moreover, Minister Angie Motshekga has remained above reproach and untainted by corruption allegations throughout her career and her tenure as the longest serving minster in the current government.
The Minister initiated the investigation into corrupt school-based appointment processes; the department cooperated fully with police investigations of possible criminality and has drafted reforms to school appointment processes now contained in the draft Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill.
A clear record of progress
The starting point for assessing progress must be access to education. Relative to a history of racially unequal access to education, we have now reached a point of essentially universal school attendance for 7-15-year-olds in South Africa. Early learning opportunities have been rapidly expanding in recent years: Only 40% of 5-year-olds attended an educational institution in 2002, compared to nearly 90% in 2021.
Increases in participation have been steepest amongst black children, those in poorer households and for children with a disability. This implies significant improvement along the dimensions of equity, redress, and inclusivity.
It is significant that in the context of expanding access to schooling, the average performance of South African learners has been amongst the fastest improving in the world, this according to all three independent international assessments of learning. Some countries experience a trade-off between access to schooling and average learner performance, since those gaining access are generally from less advantageous socio-economic contexts.
These quality advances have supported consistent improvements in the outcomes of the National Senior Certificate examinations. The percentage of all youths who complete the National Senior Certificate has increased from less than 40% in the early 2000s to over 60%. The number of bachelor passes (those qualifying for university entrance) has tripled since 2008. More than 60% of these bachelor passes now come from no-fee schools, which serve children in more vulnerable and rural contexts.
One should add to this record of improvement the massive advances in pro-poor policies over the last 25 years. In 1996, roughly half of South African schools did not have an electricity supply. This figure has now increased to around 99%. We now feed more than 9 million children daily, transport children to school, and provide fee-free schooling to about 75% of our children.
The authors of the CDE reports are obviously aware of the record of clear progress in the sector because they do not actually say there has been a decline in the performance of the system. In fact, the reports do acknowledge that South Africa’s performance on all independent international assessments of learning quality improved since the early 2000s.
But this acknowledgement is in the proverbial “fine print” of the reports. It is therefore not surprising that all the media headlines covering the CDE reports have been strongly negative.
The impact of the pandemic
The one area where the CDE rightly points to a decline relates to the negative impact of the pandemic on learning. Schools had to be closed and children lost unprecedented amounts of time at school. It should be remembered that the government, led by the Minister, moved as fast as was possible to safely reopen schools, despite a lot of opposition and fear. Instead of seeing more dropping out of school during the pandemic, we actually had more learners than ever before staying in the system and progressing to grades 11 and 12. But the most damaging effect proved to be the learning in reading and mathematics that was foregone by children in the early grades. The department has led the way internationally in measuring the impact of the pandemic on learning, and the CDE used the DBE’s analysis to highlight the learning losses.
A constructive agenda for future improvement
It is true that learning outcomes in our schools remain lower and more unequal than they should be. Despite significant improvements, it does concern us that so many South African children reach the age of ten without having learned to read with adequate comprehension, for example.
But the CDE report fails to ask what contributed to the trend of improvement in SA’s learning outcomes, an important question if we are to sustain momentum and build on what worked. South Africa’s improved performance in international assessments was probably driven by some combination of expanding pre-school education, a heightened focus on learning outcomes prompted by standardized national assessments, improved initial teacher education, increased provision and use of books in classrooms, and curriculum reforms. It might have been constructive for the CDE to engage with these successes and how to build on them in the future.
Some of the recommendations made by the CDE are sensible and align to existing government priorities: focusing attention on measures of learning to foster “results-oriented mutual accountability” in the school system, as the National Development Plan calls it. Indeed, 13 out the 27 goals in the basic education sector’s 5-year plan (the “Action Plan to 2024”) are about learning outcomes.
The call to strengthen both initial teacher education and in-service teacher development is of course critical. The department, itself, has been leading the way as far as developing new evidence on which methods of supporting teachers are most cost-effective, and is constantly feeding this information into its planning and programming.
It is regrettable that the CDE reports opted for an inflammatory tone, one-sided negative analysis, and a politically charged stance, ultimately missing an opportunity to contribute to a shared agenda for improving education in the future.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Department of Basic Education: Republic of South Africa.