A recent report aimed at understanding the key challenges facing South Africa’s education system says that profoundly unequal access to quality education lies at the heart of the country’s extreme and persistent levels of inequality.
By Paul Esterhuizen, CEO of School-Days
Despite nearly three decades since the advent of democracy, an inequitable education system persists, perpetuating an inter-generational cycle of education and income inequality.
The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust’s Education Research Report identifies problems with South Africa’s education system at every level: from early childhood education to basic education and through to tertiary education.
Limited access to quality early childhood education for around 80% of the children in the country means that the majority of children enter the schooling system with learning backlogs. These learning discrepancies are exacerbated by a poorly performing and dysfunctional public school system characterised by poorly resourced schools and teachers who often don’t have the requisite subject matter expertise.
The education system has long been criticised for not attracting suitably strong and sufficiently motivated candidates to become teachers with teaching degrees attracting some of the weakest school leavers with university exemptions.
Once at university, many of these student teachers often struggle with the course requirements. Not only are they taught unsuitable curricula, but educators are often over-burdened and under-prepared. And on graduation there is no credible assessment of their readiness to teach.
The report points to studies of newly qualified teachers from the foundation and intermediate phase Bachelor of Education courses of five universities and found that their subject and pedagogical knowledge were concerningly poor.
Numerous studies in recent years have pointed to teachers’ lack of subject matter knowledge. Alarmingly, 80% of grade 6 learners are taught maths by teachers whose maths knowledge is below grade 6 level and only 55% of teachers meet the intermediate benchmark of Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). When nearly half of teachers don’t meet the benchmark requirements we should not be surprised that the majority of grade four learners can’t read for meaning.
Not only do teachers not always have sufficient subject matter knowledge but newly qualified teachers are often allocated to teach subjects for which they have not been trained, says the report.
Then there are the issues with the curriculum. The Department of Basic Education has itself conceded that the current CAPS curriculum may have too much content and require too many assessment tasks. And when curriculum changes are implemented, teachers are provided with little support.
Those learners who do manage to complete their schooling and secure a place at a university, often find that they are ill-prepared for the demands of tertiary education because of the learning deficits they carried through school, says the report.
“Perhaps the most significant challenge facing South African universities is that the basic education system is dysfunctional. The problem is of course that all the issues that arise in schools end up at the universities. And so, universities spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to address the challenges that are rooted in poor schooling,” says the report.
UNISA currently trains more than half of the country’s teachers. However, its weak institutional functionality was flagged earlier this year after an independent assessment exposed maladministration, financial irregularities, human resources failures, a troubled ICT environment, poor student services, academic malpractices, questionable management, and a culture of fear, bullying, and intimidation.
The report’s authors argue that “Either UNISA must improve its offerings or other competitors should step in and meet this need. South Africa cannot afford to carry on with the current situation.”
It calls for a renewed sense of urgency to redress past inequalities in access to quality education from birth through to the post-school system in order to escape the trap of “low-level equilibrium”.
Encouragingly, the report offers potential solutions to many of the challenges facing the education sector. To start with, universal access to quality early childhood education needs to be a non-negotiable because without it the entire education system will continue to deliver poor and unequal outcomes.
The next steps include the introduction of strategies to attract more academically able students into the teaching profession, significantly improve the quality of teacher education programmes, and lay the groundwork for the introduction of credible professional certification for new teachers.
The fact that nearly half of all government-employed teachers will retire in the next decade is a looming crisis that has been red flagged by many commentators. To maintain the current learner-teacher ratios – let alone improve them – it is estimated that South Africa will need to double the number of teachers it produces by 2030. This, says the report, offers the country a once in a generation window to flood the basic education system with better trained and prepared teachers.
The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust hits the nail on the head when it concludes that South Africa cannot afford to lose yet another generation of learners “by not giving them the key capabilities they need to succeed at higher levels of education and subsequently in the world of work.” South Africa’s economy and future growth potential depends on getting this right.