Let's Think

What is really wrong with basic education in SA?

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If the future prospects of a new generation start in grade one, or R for that matter, then political leaders were seen in all the wrong places when the 2016 school year started last week.

That South Africa’s school system is in deep trouble and failing the country and future generations, is no secret. It is best illustrated by the dual crises of one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and being at the cliff of a skills shortage as its last skilled generation reaches retirement age.

Last week Wednesday, as more than 12 million learners and in the order of 500 000 teachers started with the new school-year, political leaders from the level of metropolitan mayors through to the deputy president of the country as well as opposition party leaders turned visits to a few successful centres into media events.

In the meantime, in the Gauteng province alone, some 16 000 learners still have not found placement at schools and about 17 000 of the 61 000 tablet computers distributed to learners last year went missing. At Roodepoort Primary School – scene of racial tensions late last year – 15 teachers fearing for their safety did not pitch and the gate to the Ormonde Primary School in Johannesburg was locked because there were no water or sewerage services or phone or electricity connections.

The question is; should the leadership and top management of education at all levels, national, provincial and regional, not rather have been at central emergency centres to deal with these kinds of problems? More importantly, if they were on top of things, they should have known of these problems and have dealt with them proactively.

More fundamental problems

All of the above-mentioned problems can probably be ascribed to administrative and management failures. In the case of Roodepoort Primary there were obviously also sociopolitical contributing factors.

The developing skills crisis, referred to above, is testimony to a much more serious fundamental problem that has developed over decades: not a single generation of learners that started with the 12- or 13-year-long school career has exited it at matric level under the same education system they had entered under at grade one, or R.

An article published in the November 2012 edition of the International Business & Economic Research (IBER) Journal  states: “According  to Malada  (2010)  many  previous systems had been excellent even though they might have had flaws and room for improvement, but instead of assessing what was good and building on that, the new approach (by the new government) was to discard tried and tested basic principles of education. The result was Outcomes-Based Education (OBE), an approach that had already failed dismally in some First World countries. 

“Attempting to make it work in South Africa, which is partially a Third World country, was tantamount to re-inventing the wheel.”

Curriculum 2005

A programme under the title Curriculum 2005, based on OBE, was launched in early 1997 and started with grade one to seven in 1998 and 1999, with the intention of phasing it into all school sectors by 2005.

With it came the introduction of two ‘bands’ of education, General Education and Training (GET) (grade one - grade nine) and Further Education and Training (FET) (grades 10 - 12). GET was to be compulsory for all learners. At the same time South Africa’s extensive apprenticeship system was done away with.

It turned out to be an extremely complicated bureaucracy-heavy system, difficult to implement for teachers who were ill-prepared for its implementation.

Curriculum 2005 and its OBE turned out to be a huge flop educationally, and as an instrument of the political aim to close the gap between previously advantaged and disadvantaged communities it had a counterproductive effect.

The IBER Journal article notes: “Ironically, (a) C2005 review found that ex-model C schools were having less difficulty in implementing C2005 … whereas the focus of the government was the upliftment of the many black disadvantaged teachers and learners, Model C schools are setting the pace for state education and are the standard-bearers of schools in South Africa.

“It should also be noted that many township children are clamouring to get into Model C schools and this should indeed be a reason for serious concern. Therefore, in hindsight, it seems that the newly-proposed model ironically benefited the wrong population (group).”

Eventually Curriculum 2005 was replaced in 2008 with the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) as it became clear that government leaders, teachers and the public had lost confidence in public schools. Problems persisted and Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga in 2010 announced a new curriculum improvement process to be implemented from 2011 to 2014, with wholesale changes. This led to problems for universities with students knocking at their doors, ill-equipped to start degree studies.

A further area of concern is the school system’s relatively low retention rate of learners entering at grade one through to grade 12.

Yet another round

And now it is reported that the South African schooling system is set for another shake-up, dividing learners into three ‘educational streams’ (academic, technical occupational, or technical vocational) according to pre-determined aptitudes.

Details are not known at this stage and it is uncertain to what extent individual choice by learners and their parents and professional guidance will be catered for. The new schooling system will be developed this year, and will be piloted in 58 schools in 2017, it is reported.

However the minister and her advisors are planning the implementation of this (not so new) plan, it is hoped that they will pay heed to the conclusion of the 2012 IBER report that read: “It was deemed necessary to analyse the school system in South Africa holistically in order to take cognisance of the challenges the system is facing. It is noted that it is not possible to find instant solutions to the problems brought about not only by the … history but by the bumbling changes that have further disabled the education system.

“It was noted … that Curriculum 2005 had disastrous consequences, as implementation is meant for highly developed and First World countries and definitely not for a developing country that tends to react with emotional implementation of structures and policies.”

by Piet Coetzer

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