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Closing the Gap in Education?

Closing the Quality Gap in South African Education

An Analysis and Critique of the Education Roadmap

Leon Tikly

University of Bristol


This chapter provides an analysis and critique of contemporary debates concerning the quality of education in South Africa from a social justice perspective. In particular, it focuses on the Education Roadmap, which has gained support from a range of stakeholders in South Africa, including key members of the government. It considers the Education Roadmap in relation to dominant approaches integral to understanding education quality, namely the human capital and human rights based approaches. The chapter argues that the Roadmap shares characteristics of both approaches, although it is especially influenced by the former.

An alternative approach based on social justice principles is set out. This approach, while developing and extending aspects of the dominant ones, is pertinent because it articulates historical struggles around education in South Africa. The chapter suggests that, although the Roadmap demonstrates limited characteristics of a social justice approach, it falls short in other key aspects and it is these aspects that must form the basis for ongoing struggles for a more equitable education system.


A full account of the background to the Education Roadmap is provided by Bloch in this volume (see chapter 3). As Bloch points out, concerns about the parlous state of the South African education system were forcefully expressed at the ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007. The conference had itself sought to outline a more grassroots approach to policy linked to popular mobilisation. The impetus for the Roadmap, however, came from the Board of the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA). Prompted by the recognition of a severe skills shortage in South Africa, the Chair of the Board, Jay Naidoo, a respected political figure, brought together three key people to instigate the Roadmap process. They were the education minister at the time, Naledi Pandor; the Head of the ANC education sub-committee, Zweli Mkhize; and Jay Naidoo himself. Between them they instigated a process of stakeholder consultation that, while not fully representative, included ‘ANC and non-ANC aligned institutions, unions, government officials, academics, NGOs and other commentators’ (Bloch 2009a, 150). Of particular importance was the presence around the same table of both the government and the main teachers union, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU).

The role of the DBSA was significant to the Roadmap process from at least three respects. At an economic level, the DBSA could present a convincing overarching rationale for focusing on education quality, namely the critical shortage of skilled manpower. At a political level, the bank appeared neutral and could position itself as an ‘honest broker’ in the face of sometimes conflicting interests. At a discursive level, the key role of the DBSA finds expression in the predominance of human capital concerns that relate to its function as a development bank.

The Roadmap is presented ‘as only a beginning’, that is, the first stage in a longer term project of consultation around education quality (Bloch 2009a). Bloch, who was involved in instigating the Roadmap as an education specialist employed by the DBSA, suggests that the process goals of the Roadmap – in the sense of bringing together a broad and representative range of stakeholders to arrive at consensus over what can be done – were at least as important as the recommendations that arose as a result of the process.

It is also important to understand the Education Roadmap as contested. Although it purposefully disavows any single ideological position, preferring instead the language of neutral pragmatism, it can in fact be seen as the outcome of different ideological/discursive orientations, both within and between the organisations involved in the process of formulating it. For instance, although the DBSA is understood here primarily as a financial institution and government para-statal – operating within a global, neoliberal climate, explicitly embracing human capital approaches1 – both Bloch and Naidoo, as veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, have in the past been staunch advocates of human rights and social justice concerns in education, as have members of SADTU and indeed the ruling ANC. Nonetheless, this chapter argues that the content as well as the tone and language of the document reflect the predominance of the powerful political and economic interests in shaping it.

In a recent book, Chisholm (2004) and the contributors to the volume have identified the formation of a new middle class that includes not only the historically advantaged groups but also the new black middle class. They make the case that education policy is currently skewed in favour of this group. With its advocacy of neoliberal ‘solutions’ to the education crisis, the Roadmap is likely to further entrench the interests of the middle classes, including the new black middle class, and thus it plays a legitimising role in relation to these interests. Although this chapter is critical of key aspects of the Roadmap, the intention is to contribute towards a more radical reworking of the Roadmap idea, but in the interests of historically marginalised groups.

Turning to the Roadmap itself, six areas that are perceived to hold back education are highlighted. These include the impact of intergenerational social disadvantage; the role of teachers’ poor subject knowledge, teaching practices, lack of adequate numbers and of performance evaluation; dysfunctional, badly managed and poorly supported schools; a continuing lack of basic resources, including libraries and computers; poverty effects, including malnutrition and HIV/AIDS, gangs and drugs; and a lack of support for schools at provincial and district levels. The Roadmap draws on a framework developed by a leading economist of education, Martin Carnoy, which identifies three levels for action: in-school, support for school, and societal. A 10-point program was fashioned around these levels.

At the in-school level, the Roadmap prioritises getting teachers to be in class on time, teach and use textbooks; focus on the quality of early childhood development; conduct external tests of Year 3 learners annually and provide results to parents; ensure effective evaluation of teachers; enhance the recruitment of quality teachers and strengthen teacher development; offer bursaries to attract quality students into teacher training and enhance preservice and inservice teacher training; ensure that teacher unions have a formal and funded role in teacher development. At the level of support for the school, the plan prioritises the strengthening of management capacity, including bringing it in from the private sector, increasing the use of ICT in education and improving national–provincial alignment and efficiency. At the societal level, the Roadmap calls for a social compact for quality education that includes processes of community mobilisation and the implementation of poverty reduction measures involving a nutrition program (with health), basic infrastructure for schools and social support for children.

The Education Roadmap in relation to dominant approaches to understanding quality

In this section, the Roadmap is considered in relation to a critical discussion of the two dominant global discourses concerned with understanding education quality: the human capital and the human rights approaches. These have been described at length elsewhere (see Tikly and Barrett forthcoming). In reality, it is possible to trace the overlap between them.2 However, it is useful to distinguish between them, as each involves a different underlying view of development and of how education quality is perceived and measured in relation to development. Although the Roadmap does not set out its evidential base, Bloch’s (2009a) book, The Toxic Mix, together with a report to a parliamentary committee (Bloch 2009b) and some other technical background materials (DBSA 2008; Taylor et al. 2008), help to illuminate the overall thinking behind the document and the evidence drawn upon during the consultation process. The analysis of the Roadmap has been undertaken against a reading of these accompanying texts.

The human capital approach

Several authors have provided a summary of the shifting nature of human capital discourses globally since the 1970s (see Ilon 1994; Tikly 2004; Robertson et al. 2007; Unterhalter 2007). The central rationale for investing in education (including more recently education quality) lies in the contribution that education can make to economic growth. Here GDP is understood as the most significant indicator of development. The role of education in relation to economic growth, however, has shifted over the years. An initial focus on manpower planning gave way in the 1970s to understanding better investment choices at different levels of education through rates of return analysis. In the context of the shift from the Washington to the Post-Washington consensus (see Robertson et al. 2007), human capital theory has begun to complement a continued interest in rates of return with an interest in education’s role in alleviating poverty and promoting social welfare, including women’s welfare, as a basis for improving growth and human security. This has prompted a shift in political commitment from cost sharing to free primary education (Jones 2007). Nonetheless, exponents of human capital theory continue to advocate market-led, neoliberal policies as a basis for reform. While primary education has traditionally been identified by exponents of human capital theory as a priority in terms of investment, the current emphasis is widening to include secondary and post-basic levels of education and training to equip populations with the skills required to participate in the ‘global knowledge economy’. It is in this context that economists working within a human capital framework have begun to show a keen interest in the quality of education (eg Wils et al. 2007; Hanushek and Wößmann 2008; Vegas and Petrow 2008).

Human capital theory had an ambiguous relationship with education policy during the transition from apartheid to democracy. Although some themes – including manpower planning and rates of return – have entered into the policy debate, they have generally been subordinate in policy terms to Afrikaner nationalist ideologies during the apartheid era and a commitment to rights-based approaches in the immediate post-apartheid phase (Chisholm and Fine 1994). However, the uptake of human capital themes in the Roadmap, particularly those concerned with decentralisation and the introduction of user fees, have become increasingly influential, as a recent collection of essays has highlighted (see Chisholm 2004). Contributors to the collection argue that the Roadmap represents a further shift in South African education policy towards the take-up of human capital themes, including the recent trend of linking the quality of education with economic growth.

In this regard, Hanushek and Wößmann (2008) argue that there is a statistically and economically positive effect of the quality of education on economic growth that is far larger than the association between quantity of education and growth. They suggest that quality, as measured by student achievement on standardised tests, correlates more strongly with economic growth than simply years spent in school. Others have argued from a human capital perspective that countries that have the highest levels of inequality in the education sector (of any kind) also have the slowest national growth rates (Wils et al. 2007). Although these findings are based largely on empirical work in high-income countries, it is claimed that there are lessons for countries such as South Africa, given the deep-seated and pervasive nature of educational inequalities. Indeed, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with the distribution of wealth currently more unequal than it was a decade ago,3 and these inequalities are mirrored in the education system. Human capital theory does not provide a framework for understanding education quality. Influential texts on education quality published by the World Bank have therefore often adopted school effectiveness approaches (Lockheed and Verspoor 1991; Heneveld and Craig 1996). The preferred school effectiveness frameworks are based around what can be described as a ‘process model’. Inputs (in the form of financial and material resources), teacher and student characteristics are acted on by educational processes producing outcomes. The Roadmap is based around a process model developed by Carnoy (cited in Bloch 2009a) and this is discussed below.

In terms of strategies to raise the quality of education, human capital theorists typically propose market-led solutions. These are often premised on a version of rational choice theory in which individuals are presumed to act in their own economic best interests. Hanushek and Wößmann (2008), writing from a human capital approach, emphasise three key areas that reform initiatives will have to address to raise quality: creating greater choice and competition between schools, which will encourage schools to improve outcomes; greater school autonomy, including local decision making, fiscal decentralisation and parental involvement; and greater accountability through the publication of school performance data, the use of external examinations and benchmarking, including participation of countries in international tests.

From this brief overview of the human capital approach, it is clear that it has been influential in shaping the Roadmap. Although the document does not make explicit its view of development or of the relationship between education quality and development, as Bloch (2009a, 2009b) has suggested, a key rationale behind its instigation was the skills crisis and its likely impact on the economy, which is consistent with the DBSA’s overall uptake of human capital themes (see also DBSA 2008). Neither does the Roadmap offer a definition of education quality. In keeping with human capital approaches, however, it clearly associates quality with the results of standardised test scores.

There are several criticisms that can be levelled at the human capital approach to education quality that apply in turn to the Roadmap. For example, it is problematic to assume a linear relationship between inputs, processes and outputs of education that is often implied by a process model. Rather, the inter-relationships between student background, resource inputs, educational processes and outputs are complex and vary according to context. The danger with a model such as that presented in the Roadmap is that it presents a one-size-fits-all approach to quality that is insensitive to the learning needs of different groups of learners and diverse learning environments. Further, the over-reliance on standardised assessments of cognitive learning as a measure of quality can also be problematic (Barrett 2009). Readily measurable cognitive outcomes shift from being privileged indicators of quality to defining quality. When this happens, qualitative indicators and a concern with the processes of teaching and learning in classrooms can be easily overlooked (Alexander 2008).

Further, the empirical evidence linking education quality with growth needs to be treated with caution. As Hanushek and Wößmann (2008) point out, for education quality to lead to increased wages, a strong macroeconomic and labour-market environment is necessary. This is significant for South Africa, where the macroeconomic environment has become increasingly vulnerable in the context of the global financial crisis and where large sections of the historically disadvantaged population are unemployed (eg Bhorat 2004). The danger is that education is perceived as a panacea for problems that have their root causes elsewhere in the wider economy and society.

There is also a contradiction between the concern with educational inequality in human capital theory and some of the market-led ‘solutions’ that are proposed. As a recent UNESCO report has highlighted, policies based on greater ‘choice’, competition, decentralisation and local accountability often exacerbate rather than reduce inequality (see UNESCO 2009 for a discussion of these). This has been the case in South Africa (Chisholm 2004). As various commentators have argued (Chisholm 2004; Fleisch 2007), devolving power and permitting historically advantaged schools to determine the level of fees has contributed to a growing gulf in quality between these schools and historically disadvantaged schools. This has offset other government efforts to redress historic inequalities in funding.4 There is also limited evidence to suggest that greater local accountability and choice results in improved outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged groups (UNESCO 2009). A priority in the Roadmap document is to provide parents with more information about how schools are performing in standardised tests, so that they can hold schools to account and presumably have a basis on which to choose between schools. However, such a policy assumes that parents are able to access and interpret whatever information may be provided by schools and are in a position to influence school policy. This is a problematic assumption, given that many parents have low levels of education and lack opportunities for genuine participation in school governance, particularly the parents of disadvantaged learners (Grant Lewis and Naidoo 2004). Further, the majority of parents, particularly in the rural areas, have very limited choice of schools (Tikly and Mabogoane 1997). Thus, while these policies may provide greater choice and opportunities to urban elites, they are less likely to benefit disadvantaged learners.

As we have seen, the Roadmap identifies a raft of issues relating to teachers as a major cause of the education crisis. The background documents provide evidence about poor subject knowledge and teaching practices and a lack of qualified teachers (DBSA 2008; Taylor et al. 2008). The Roadmap correctly identifies improvements in preservice and inservice training as important for raising quality, including better coordination between different aspects of professional learning (Lewin and Stuart 2003; Sayed 2004). However, there is less evidence for some of the other, more market-led ‘solutions’ to the teacher crisis. For example, there is limited evidence to support the recommendation in the Roadmap to implement performance-related pay linked to performance evaluation as a means to raise quality. What international evidence that does exist suggests that it is often a mixture of factors related to professional status, overall levels of pay, job satisfaction, conditions of service, including housing and intrinsic rewards from teaching, that motivate teachers and raise achievement of learners and that the mix depends very much on the context (Bennell 2004; Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2009). There is also limited evidence that creating competition by rewarding schools that are successful at raising achievement will benefit disadvantaged learners. Indeed, such policies have often had a negative impact on equity because they have favoured schools that are already successful (UNESCO 2009). More evidence is also needed about the impact of providing incentives to graduates to address the teacher shortage. There is no guarantee that graduates drawn into the scheme will end up teaching in historically disadvantaged schools.

A final point in relation to the influence of human capital approaches is the emphasis on the ‘efficiency’ of the education system, which is a priority in the Roadmap. On the one hand this is a legitimate concern for South Africa, which spends a relatively high proportion of its GDP on education but has poor returns in terms of measurable outcomes. In The Toxic Mix, Bloch (2009a) identifies a range of issues relating to administrative capacity and lack of skills to sheer incompetence and corruption, which contribute to inefficiency. Importantly, the effects of inefficiency impact most heavily on disadvantaged learners (UNESCO 2009). What is less clear is whether these problems can be tackled through the means identified in the Roadmap.

There is no guarantee that bringing in capacity from other areas of the bureaucracy that are also likely to suffer from capacity issues will help in any way. The private sector is often seen as a panacea for the ills of the public sector, but the evidence relating to the effectiveness of public–private partnerships from other parts of the world is not clear cut. The involvement of the private sector may appear to offer short-term solutions, but it is symptomatic of the underlying issue, which is state failure. An alternative short-term solution would be to provide more and better training for bureaucrats and school principals. Other problems, such as corruption, need to be tackled through transparent processes and a mix of legal, educational and administrative means.5 Improving efficiency and tackling corruption require a firm will and the moral commitment of leaders. These dimensions are barely addressed in the Roadmap. It is to a discussion of these issues that the chapter now turns.

Human rights approaches

In contrast to the human capital approach, the human rights approach is interested in rights to education, rights in education and rights through education (Subrahmanian 2002; Unterhalter 2007). Whereas in human capital approaches economic growth is the object of development, in rights-based approaches it is the realisation of fundamental human rights. These include the enactment of negative rights such as protection from abuse, as well as positive rights such as celebration and nurturing of learner creativity, use of local languages in schools, student participation in democratic structures and debate. While classroom processes have typically been treated as something of a ‘black box’ within human capital frameworks, teaching approaches that are broadly identified as learner centred and school structures that are democratic are promoted within the human rights approach. The human rights discourse has become increasingly influential globally (Tikly and Barrett forthcoming); for example, two rights-based quality frameworks have been promoted by UN agencies.

A rights-based approach to education quality has profound significance for South Africa. In this respect, campaigns for basic rights to, in and through education were central to the struggle against apartheid (Christie 1991; Kallaway 2002). In particular, learners campaigned against a profoundly unequal and racially segregated education system, against having to learn in Afrikaans, against racist and authoritarian curricula and against corporal punishment and the sexual harassment of female learners and teachers. Students’ organisations argued for learner-centred approaches and for democratic participation in decision making. Since the end of apartheid, there have been some important achievements in terms of realising these rights, including the creation of a unified education system, an attempt at greater equalisation of government expenditure between historically advantaged and disadvantaged schools, and the abolition of corporal punishment. Since 1994 the South African Government has also been proactive in pioneering learner-centred curricula and pedagogy in the form of Outcomes Based Education (OBE), although this has come in for increasing criticism, including in the Roadmap.

In The Toxic Mix, Bloch (2009a) articulates a rationale for a focus on education quality informed by rights-based concerns. Drawing on the UNESCO 2005 framework (UNESCO 2004), Bloch argues the case for a quality education as a right in itself and as instrumental in the development of other rights, including those associated with democratic citizenship. Bloch has also articulated rights-based concerns when presenting the Roadmap to parliament (Bloch 2009b). However, these concerns are almost completely non-existent in the Roadmap document itself. Through not making explicit its values basis and seeking to couch the document in the language of ‘neutrality’, the result has been to reinforce implicit values and interests, including those associated with a market-led approach. There is no statement of right or entitlement to a quality education. Nor is there mention of the need to preserve negative freedoms, such as the right not to be subject to corporal punishment or sexual harassment or to be discriminated against on the basis of race, culture, religion, HIV/AIDS status or sexual orientation, despite the fact that abuses of all of these rights are a regular occurrence in South African schools (Vally 2002). The document is also silent on positive rights, such as the right to have one’s culture reflected in the curriculum and to learn in one’s mother tongue. Indeed, for the most part, the document can safely be described as a ‘value-free zone’. Reading between the lines, however, it is possible to identify two broad areas in which the Roadmap does connect with rights-based concerns.

The first of these is in relation to the curriculum and pedagogy. In contrast to trends elsewhere, the Roadmap takes a step back from learner-centred approaches to instruction, at least as they have been articulated in OBE, which is identified in the background materials concerned with underachievement (DBSA 2008). Rather, the Roadmap embraces a ‘return to basics’ in the form of the government’s Foundations for Learning Campaign, which built on a smaller scale initiative in the Western Cape. In this respect the document reflects broader debates in South Africa around curriculum and pedagogy, in which OBE has often been the scapegoat for wider ills in the system. A concern about the current debate, however, is that it is in important respects rhetorical rather than based on firm evidence. For example, the Chisholm Report (DoE 2000), which undertook a review of the OBE curriculum, criticised its complexity and the implementation process but was supportive of the underlying principles of OBE. The curriculum was subsequently revised and streamlined. Contrary to some of the fears expressed in the media, it is too early to assess any long-term trends concerning the impact of OBE on matriculation rates, as the first cohort to have experienced OBE for the entirety of their schooling graduated only in 2008. It is also important not to conflate learner-centred approaches in general with the specific form that they have taken in South African schools, or to assume that learner-centred approaches are difficult to implement per se.6 Bloch presents some powerful evidence to support a greater focus on the foundations of literacy and numeracy in the early years.7 There is considerable international evidence to support this finding (Barrett et al. 2007). The Foundations for Learning Campaign has the virtue of having been piloted, although it is too early to assess the impact of the program. The debate in South Africa is in danger of becoming polarised between advocates of OBE, on the one hand, and of a ‘back to basics’ approach, on the other, when the international evidence suggests that the most effective approaches to raising the achievement of disadvantaged learners in resource-poor environments often involve a mix of child-centred and more structured forms of pedagogy, depending on the context (UNESCO 2004; Barrett 2007; Barrett et al. 2007).

The second area where the document connects with a rights-based agenda is in relation to the development of a ‘social compact for quality education’. The Roadmap proposes the establishment of a National Consultative Forum dedicated to clarifying ‘the “nonnegotiables” and performance targets for key stakeholders, and the monitoring thereof’ (Bloch 2009a, 157). Although the language of performance targets and monitoring speaks principally of human capital concerns, there is, arguably, an implicit view of the right of stakeholders to participate in a national debate. However, while the idea of a forum does provide a limited basis for grassroots engagement, the process as outlined in the Roadmap is state led. The top-down nature of the document is reflected in the disciplinary tone of the text and background materials. Thus, although ‘blame’ for the crisis is perceived to lie to some extent with educational bureaucrats, most of the focus is on teacher unions, teachers themselves, managers and ‘dysfunctional schools’.8 Notably absolved from blame are senior politicians, despite the fact that it is they who have consistently failed to deliver on their election promises. The discussion draws attention to a general limitation of a rights-based approach to education quality (Tikly and Barrett forthcoming) – at least as it has been enacted by governments and development agencies – in that it has often had as its focus the state and its institutions as the locus of change. While legal and policy frameworks are important for guaranteeing basic rights, as suggested below, civil society also has a critical role to play in advocacy and in mobilising for change.

The social justice approach

The aim of this concluding section is to set out a social justice9 approach to understanding education quality and to use this to assess the extent to which the Roadmap advances social justice principles and concerns. The approach has been described in depth elsewhere (Tikly and Barrett forthcoming) and is summarised here. The underlying view of social justice is based on Nancy Fraser’s work. Fraser (2008) defines justice as ‘parity of participation’ (16). She explains that ‘overcoming injustice means dismantling institutionalized obstacles that prevent some people from participating on a par with others as full partners in social interaction’ (Fraser 2008, 16). The framework is also informed by ongoing work in the area of capabilities and education (Brighouse 2000; Robeyns 2003; 2006; Unterhalter 2007; Walker 2006; Walker and Unterhalter 2007). The concept of capabilities is taken from the seminal work of Sen (eg 1999; 2009) and Nussbaum (2000; 2006). Capabilities and associated concepts of wellbeing have become increasingly influential in mainstream development thinking. Capabilities have been posited by Sen as an alternative to a focus on economic wealth as a measure of development and described by Nussbaum as ‘a species of a human rights approach’ (Nussbaum 2006, 78) and thus have the potential to bridge and extend the human capital and rights-based approaches to education quality discussed above. Put simply, capabilities are the opportunities that individuals have to realise different ‘functionings’10 that they may have reason to value and that contribute to wellbeing (Sen 1999; 2009).

Capabilities thus imply more than simply skills in a narrow sense. They also imply the opportunity for individuals to convert whatever resources they may have at their disposal into achievements or outcomes of different kinds. Besides basic literacy and numeracy, other capabilities linked to education might include access to knowledge, critical thinking, problem solving, emotional literacy and autonomy, which – besides their utility in relation to developing useful functionings – have an intrinsic value of their own (Walker 2006). In this sense, ‘education quality’ may be defined in terms of the opportunities to develop the greater capability set that are afforded to different individuals and groups through the processes of teaching and learning. However, for Sen what counts as a capability is context dependent and needs to be arrived at through processes of public debate and advocacy at different levels. A key focus for debate is elucidating the moral case for a quality education that provides a basis for whatever becomes enshrined in policy and law.

The social justice approach can be summarised in relation to three interrelated principles that provide a benchmark against which social justice within an education system can be evaluated. The first of these, that education should be inclusive, is concerned with ensuring that all learners achieve specified learning outcomes. The focus here is not only on access to the necessary resources to learn, but on overcoming economic, social and cultural barriers that prevent individuals and groups from converting these resources into desired outcomes. A social justice approach does not require all learners to have access to the same kind of quality inputs. Past injustices along with differing educational needs mean that learners require different kinds and levels of resources to develop their capabilities. The second principle is that a quality education must be relevant; that is, that learning outcomes are meaningful for all learners, valued by their communities and consistent with national development priorities in a changing global context. The third principle is that education should be democratic, in the sense that learning outcomes are determined through public debate and ensured through processes of accountability. In the remainder of the chapter each of these principles is applied to the Roadmap.

Turning first to the principle of inclusion, the Roadmap recognises disadvantage in access to a quality education, although there are limitations. For example, the document identifies school feeding as a priority. Evidence from an analysis of the SACMEQ II data set11 suggests that malnutrition is arguably the most significant barrier to achievement in mathematics and literacy for the poorest 25 per cent of the population in South Africa (Smith 2010; see also Fleisch 2007). Further, the Roadmap prioritises providing more social support for disadvantaged learners, although it is unclear what is entailed by this in practical terms. There is also evidence to support the recommendation in the Roadmap concerning the use of ICTs and audiovisual equipment, although interventions need to focus on how technologies are deployed and their fit to desired learning outcomes if they are to be successful in raising achievement (UNESCO 2004). However, research has identified other possible interventions that are not mentioned in the Roadmap. The provision of basic materials such as exercise books, pens and rulers, and having access to a school library, all impact positively on achievement, particularly for the most disadvantaged learners, and such materials are still not uniformly available in South Africa (Smith 2010).

Further, as is the case with human capital discourses more generally, key aspects of socioeconomic inequality are glossed over in the Roadmap. The document does not make any suggestions about how to close the enormous gap in quality between historically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. There is also evidence that where children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds attend historically advantaged schools there remains a significant achievement gap between them and more advantaged learners (Smith 2010). From a social justice perspective, this implies the need to explore more effective ways to target government funding. A recent UNESCO (2009) report has identified a range of means by which governments effectively target funding to disadvantaged groups. Possible examples here include greater use of school grants to address specific forms of disadvantage; the use of funding formulae to reflect the proportion of disadvantaged learners in schools; packages of measures to attract better qualified and more experienced teachers to historically disadvantaged schools; and the use of incentives to reward schools that raise the achievement of the most disadvantaged learners (in contrast to the neoliberal emphasis on rewarding schools that are already successful in raising achievement). As with any intervention, they would need to be trialled and evaluated to assess their impact. They would also require a more robust informational basis, including a way to assess individual learners’ needs, and more robust mechanisms to monitor and track their progress than those currently in place.

The focus on socioeconomic disadvantage in the Roadmap is consistent with the emphasis within human capital discourses. Further, in keeping with these discourses there is a lack of recognition of the justice claims of other marginalised groups. There is compelling evidence suggesting that a major source of underachievement that impacts most heavily on the most socioeconomically disadvantaged learners is the use of a language of instruction in the school that is not spoken widely by the child outside of school (Fleisch 2007; Smith 2010). The Roadmap is completely silent on this issue. Similarly, gender is notable by its absence from the Roadmap, despite the fact that girls in rural areas are less likely to do as well as their urban peers (Smith 2010). Sexualised forms of violence also remain a serious issue in many schools. Besides violating the rights of girls and women, schools that report sexualised violence also have lower scores in maths and literacy (Smith 2010).

Turning to the principle of ‘relevance’, consideration is given in the last section to the balance between different forms of curriculum content and pedagogy and different outcomes of education. It has been suggested that the Roadmap offers a narrow, instrumentalist view of education quality, focusing almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy. For authors such as Nussbaum and Sen, literacy and numeracy are key capabilities, although they form a part of a potentially much wider capability set. Although very much in its infancy, a capability approach provides a fresh perspective from which to begin to evaluate existing curriculum arrangements, including both OBE and Foundations for Learning, although space does not allow for a full discussion of the implications of this approach here (Walker 2006; Unterhalter 2007; Tikly and Barrett forthcoming). It would entail opening up to informed public debate the extent to which existing curriculum arrangements produce outcomes that learners, parents, communities and society at large have reason to value. This would involve engaging directly with the politics and practicalities of curriculum reform in a context where different stakeholders have access to different degrees of social voice (Chisholm 2003). It would also involve developing an appropriate informational basis on which a range of capabilities can be identified and measured. What is implied is an approach to curriculum change that is considerably more thoroughgoing than that proposed by the Roadmap.

This takes us to the third principle, namely that decisions about what constitutes a quality education should be democratic. This includes debates about national frameworks, but also at the provincial and school levels about how national frameworks can be implemented. What distinguishes a social justice approach is the importance that is attached to the role of grassroots civil society and community-based organisations and NGOs in advocating issues concerned with quality.12 In the Roadmap civil society is perceived to have a role, but the role is largely confined to one of holding schools and teachers to account for poor examination grades and providing financial and other support for schools and for forms of philanthropy. It does not encompass holding politicians and elites to account for the systemic failures of the system as a whole. As Grant Lewis and Naidoo (2004) have argued, if communities are to have a genuine voice in local decision making, this involves deepening and extending the role of school governing bodies beyond a narrow concern with efficiency.

The struggle against apartheid education is a testament to the importance of advocacy on the part of civil society. A concern with the normative and ethical basis of education, crystallised into the notion of ‘people’s education’ during the 1980s, was a characteristic of the anti-apartheid struggle and of the discourses of the post-1994 government. However, such a clear articulation of principle has been lacking in more recent debates, including in the Roadmap, as civil society has become hollowed out and radical voices incorporated into the new elites or co-opted by government. Speaking from his perspective as a veteran political activist, chapter two of Bloch’s (2009a) book is taken up with an account of the apartheid past and of the struggle. What is not clear is how the social justice values and principles that were so clearly articulated during that era, and the moral imperative that drove the struggle forward, resonate with the market-led priorities set out in the Roadmap.


1    This is evident, for example, on the DBSA web page

2    Indeed some of the better known quality frameworks, including that contained in the 2005 Global Monitoring Report (UNESCO 2004), bring together aspects of both.

3    The gini coefficient, which is a measure of economic inequality, has increased over the past decade from 0.64 to 0.66 in South Africa. Most developed countries have scores of between 0.20 and 0.40 (SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) cited in the Times, 26 November 2009).

4    These have included attempts to equalise personnel costs in the period after the transition by offering voluntary severance to more experienced teachers in historically advantaged schools, and efforts to skew the infrastructure budget in favour of historically disadvantaged schools through implementing an index of need.

5    See UNESCO (2008) for a summary of evidence relating to ways to overcome corruption in education.

6    In India, for example, a longstanding tradition of learner-centred multi-grade teaching in a minority of schools (Little 2006; Blum 2009) has blossomed into the implementation of activity-based learning in state schools in Chennai and in rural areas (Sriprakash 2008).

7    He points out the appalling statistic that 62.5 per cent of Grade 3 students in former white schools in the Western Cape could read and count at appropriate levels, but that the corresponding figure in African townships was 1 per cent (Bloch 2009b, 2).

8    Bloch uses the term ‘dysfunctional schools’ to refer to historically disadvantaged schools with significant proportions of underachieving learners. It is suggested that this term is unhelpful because it homogenises schools that undoubtedly face a range of problems and has the effect of pathologising not only the schools themselves, but the teachers, learners and communities around the schools.

9    In applying the principles of social justice, it is important to take account of the western origins of the term and to argue the relevance of the concept for the African continent. We have attempted to do this elsewhere (Tikly and Dachi 2009).

10   Walker (2006) gives some useful examples that assist in distinguishing capabilities from functionings. Thus she distinguishes mobility (a capability) from actually being able to move around (a functioning). Similarly, she separates the capability of literacy from the function of actually reading and the capability of being well educated from acting and being a well-educated person.

11   Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ). The analysis was carried out by the Research Programme Consortium on Implementing Education Quality (EdQual) and is reported in Smith (2010).

12   An example from elsewhere in the world is Prathan in India. This community-based organisation conducts its own assessments of quality independently of government and is involved in ongoing advocacy work around interventions to raise quality.


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Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen