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Closing the Gap in Education?

Bridging the Gap in South African Education

Graeme Bloch

Development Bank of Southern Africa

Ordinary South Africans feel troubled by the state of crisis in their education system. More than that, as shown in the recent round of Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) Education Conversations held around the country, people are looking for solutions and want to make a difference. My hope for the conference held at Monash South Africa in November 2009 was that we could learn from differences and similarities in the experience of marginalisation, exclusion and the many barriers to development within the participating societies – Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

I want to praise the recent round of apologies in Australia. There is often reason to be cynical or questioning. However, I don’t think one can overestimate the importance of publicly and symbolically confronting head-on a deep social problem, acknowledging openly its human impact and cruelty, and finding it in oneself to accept responsibility. In South Africa, four young men at Free State University – who treated adult workers old enough to be their mothers in an abysmal and humiliating way – learned in a national debate that there can be no forgiveness without apology.

This chapter is about education and the reproduction of a deep state of inequality and underperformance in South African schools. These inequalities threaten the very cohesion of South Africa’s new democracy. In their racial dimensions, education and schooling specifically reproduce inequalities from the past. This bifurcated education system ensures that the children of the poor will not find a way into quality education as a sure and tested route to confront their poverty. There is, however, a growing ‘policy space’ where South Africans are confronting the reality of poor performance in education and its developmental implications. The potential exists for broad, multi-stakeholder alliances involving communities and citizens, NGOs and business, to confront the education problem, led by a renewed and listening government.

But let the young speak. There was a short lad, part of a guard of honour at a semi-rural school in the Vaal, who greeted me on arrival at Michael Rua School recently. ‘I like you’, I said, ‘you are about the same size I was when I was in grade 6’. ‘My name is Gift’, he replied. ‘I may be small, but I am big in here’, and he pointed his fingers to his head.

Yet, for most students, schools in South Africa are a disaster zone.1 Instead of being places of academic achievement and excellence, where students can develop their talents and shoot for the stars, schools have become zones of exclusion for learners, with poor outcomes, where many students feel unsafe from bullying or violence, and where the skills, attitudes and behaviours for employment and a democratic future are not being nurtured.

Outcomes are poor, so that South Africa does not produce the engineers, doctors, accountants, teachers or managers who can help to imagine a future that has not yet been lived, who can develop plans for it and implement the means to get the society there. Worse, these poor outcomes take a racial dimension in a society where all children rightfully expect the best. Inequalities are reproduced in ways that are neither fair nor sustainable.

There are plenty of facts to show that – despite vast resources and a high budget for education – South Africa s just not getting value for its spend. In Europe, 75 per cent of children can do what only South Africa’s top 10 per cent can, yet all have to compete in a cut-throat globalised world. More than half of South African children, mostly black, drop out before Matric. They routinely come last or near the bottom for all international tests on literacy and numeracy, with only some 35 per cent of students reading or counting at appropriate levels and only 18 per cent able to do both. Where half of white matriculants go on to university, less than 12 per cent of blacks do; where 62.5 per cent of Grade 3 students in ex-model C schools could do maths in 2003, only 0.1 of a per cent of township kids could! Neither university nor vocational skills systems have found their measure. South Africa’s kids are not getting it. The country is failing generation after generation of young people.

Last year’s DBSA-coordinated Education Roadmap – itself a stakeholder process involving teacher unions, government, officials, NGOs, academics and others – identified the interplay of complex factors in the ‘toxic mix’ that makes education change enormously difficult.

The first factor is historical and real – Dr Verwoerd’s2 refusal to allow blacks to be shown ‘the green pastures where they will not be allowed to graze’ or to study maths ‘when they would not be allowed to use it’ has left a poor educational heritage and a shallow layer of maths skills among teachers. Such deficits cannot disappear overnight, despite the best plans. Hiring Zimbabwean teachers or putting Indian experts in deep rural schools – as some propose – may at best be short-term fixes. What future black mathematics graduate will choose teaching over accountancy, business or politics?

Similarly, students are often hungry, suffer from worms, have lost parents to HIV/AIDS, and learn in schools without laboratories, libraries, computers or sports fields and sometimes even electricity. These historical legacies have been compounded by serious policy mistakes in post-democratic South Africa – from inexplicable teacher retrenchments to closure of teacher colleges to the over-optimistic ideals and regressive impacts of outcomes-based education (OBE).

The three levels that interact to hold schools back are:

  1. In-class: teachers are not prepared, nor disciplined, nor have content knowledge to teach effectively. Unions have become locked in confrontational labour relations mode in continuous war with education departments. Teaching is the only profession with no agreed supervision. Year after year the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), the main teacher union, complains about results in poor schools, but is seldom seen to mobilise its members who are in those poor schools. A culture of victimhood prevails. So Ronald Nyathi, an official of SADTU Gauteng, can threaten students with ‘extreme violence’ in one strike; say, ‘We love our principals; we don’t want to see any dead ones’ in another strike; complain that naming and shaming child abusers would be unfair, impacting on their careers in yet another. The one hope is that his union is finally beginning to draw a line; even, on occasion, in public.
  2. Support to school: there are limited management skills among the 27,000 principals and inadequate support from government and education districts – compliance and forms substitute for pedagogical, social and administrative support that helps teachers get on with the job of teaching. Officials struggle to build real partnerships.
  3. Societal: whether it be infrastructure backlogs, gangs, hunger, low parent involvement or a society that fails to value educational aspiration and achievement, education has not found its accepted place as the tried and tested route out of poverty. Recent plans to make education ‘priority number one’, led by President Zuma, do give hope.

I am amazed at how successful ‘gang’ schools are: somehow, in the hidden underworld, the gangs are able to train and nurture young people to achieve their aims of focused, lawless behaviour. This shows how children are able to apply themselves if given opportunities – for young people are out and about at all hours, consistently and with discipline. They can quickly dismantle the latest burglar-alarm technology. They steal to order. They have an income, a steady job and, if they work hard, they have respect in the gang community and enough money to even fund community events. Why can secret criminal schools do what society’s schools fail to achieve – provide jobs, skills, respect and a sense of belonging? Why is there no clear social vision of achievement and excellence to challenge the attraction of the gang leaders?

More than that – in the first place, crime and violence in schools reproduce the violence and bullying of the wider society and are carried into schools from that society. Then, violence within schools impacts on all three levels essential to schooling. In the classroom students are disruptive, ill-disciplined and engage in over-sexualised and inappropriate behaviour that threatens learning. In the playground the routine, administration and order of the school day are threatened as gangsters roam across the school grounds and into classrooms. Principals are shot dead by union rivals, as happened recently in KwaZulu-Natal province. And in society students are attracted away from schools by the ‘bling’ of gang life, are raped and threatened, and the soul of their communities is eaten away.

So a ‘toxic mix’ conspires to make it difficult and complex to change education outcomes. Very few countries in recent times have succeeded. Yet South Africa expects better and to be different, as it creaks under the unchanged weight of its apartheid past. In-class and teacher-based issues, poor technical, administrative and political support around the school, and limitations of society – from gangs to lack of books in the home – all combine to reinforce the past; to encourage division and mediocrity. Instead of a learning nation going forward, a deep mix of history and sociology, of bad choice and unsatisfactory delivery, institutional failure and social deficit all hold back the country and stop schools from doing what they should do. In particular, poor black, rural and township children are at the receiving end of the ‘toxic mix’ that holds them back.

Much has been done in 15 years. But the task should not be underestimated. It took enormous effort to unify education departments. There is the logistical achievement of a single national Matric exam and high levels of budgetary allocation to education, realigning spend to pro-poor norms. We have a raft of praiseworthy programs that aim to improve teaching and conditions of learning. Measures support teacher training and bursaries, school nutrition, infrastructure improvement, scholar transport and school safety initiatives, and acknowledge the need for learning strategies around basic literacy and numeracy. Where there were only 1200 black matriculants nationally in 1976, now more than 600,000 students write Matric, two-thirds of whom are black.

Much is also being done on the ground to make a difference. Many schools and communities – from Colesburg in the Hantam, to Bitou/Plettenburg Bay to Soweto to deep-rural Limpopo and historic church schools – daily face their issues and come up with action-plans. They draw down maths support, sports possibilities such as Dreamfields, or NGOs that make a difference from extra-murals to citizenship classes. Even in the poorest circumstances, there are well-managed schools that get results. Graduates from poorer schools ‘plough back’ to provide networks and assistance to disadvantaged children; corporates have adjusted funding models to encourage better partnerships and contribute skills such as management and resources within a longer term, more hands-on approach.

Government too deserves praise. OBE and some teacher burdens have been removed. Post-Polokwane [ANC conference held in 2007], there is indeed a listening government and there are signals of a new seriousness within a genuine ‘policy space’. The President regularly speaks about education, reaffirms the strength of ordinary people as the country’s most important asset, and speaks to the role of achievement and excellence as the one sure route out of poverty.

There is much to give hope. Yet without a massive change in mindset, an agreed vision and a clear plan with priorities and targets – unless the whole society mobilises around education as priority number one – South Africa will continue to fail generation after generation of young people. There is nothing wrong with its youth – South Africa’s young people made sacrifices at Soweto in 1976 and again and again in the struggle for liberation. They rightfully expect the opportunities and possibilities that quality education can bring.3

There is a brief window of opportunity, a ‘policy space’, in which all are called to come forward, to put shoulders to the wheel and take responsibility together, urgently and with commitment, to renew education, to bridge the country’s gaps, and to help the nation’s children shoot for the stars.


1   All references can be found in Bloch, G. 2009. The Toxic Mix: What’s Wrong with South Africa’s Schools and How to Fix It. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

2   Dr Verwoerd was the architect of Bantu Education, introduced for blacks in 1953.

3   There are two theoretical questions this chapter does not confront. Why has poverty in South Africa continued and to what extent? Why and how does a dualistic education system reinforce the experience of South Africa’s poor and marginalised majority in the country’s second economy? Some views would look to the nature of the post-democratic transition, and suggest either an elite transition resulted from a negotiated transition or the conscious ‘class project’ of local black elites in alliance with globalised neoliberalism. Continued poor education would then have been a simple continuation of an exploitative relation by a parasitic political and economic class. Other views would perhaps be more sociological and look to the difficulties of transformation. In not consciously confronting the role education plays in society, in taking poor policy decisions with a highly limited civil service, the previous structures of inequality were bound to continue or be reinforced. Another, more ‘organisational’ or institutional, focus would suggest that in the absence of leadership, in the face of inattention and negligence, with ‘political symbolism’ substituting for a plan and clear agenda, inequalities were bound to be reproduced. This is marginalisation through negligence. Another view would stress the problems and limitations of mobilised civil society and perhaps take a less statist and more empowering view. I think some of these under-researched areas will provide fascinating insights into aspects of the South African transition, itself a deeply under-theorised area served with very little robust literature.

Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen