Newsletter 317 - "The Illusion of Education in South Africa" - Moeketsi Letseka

5th World Conference on Educational Sciences - WCES 2013

The Illusion of Education in South Africa

Moeketsi Letseka*

College of Education, University of South Africa,P O Box 392,UNISA, Pretoria 0003, South Africa

Moeketsi argues that;

  1. South Africa is a liberal democratic state
  2. That boasts of a constitution that enshrines a variety of rights and freedoms for the individual. Indeed
  3. South Africa’s constitution has been described as ‘a model liberal democratic constitution’ (Jordan, 1996),
  4. ‘A constitution of classic liberalism’ (Vilakazi, 2003),
  5. And a ‘state of the art document’ (Mattes, 2002), that is ‘widely hailed as liberal and egalitarian’ (Deveaux, 2003) because
  6. ‘It values human dignity and frames human rights at its heart’ (Robinson, 2012).
  7. Yet the country’s education system is so dysfunctional that the above constitutional ideals seem more like a mere pipedream.

“In this article I briefly sketch the dysfuctionality of education system and propose ways in which it can be resolved. I find solace in John O’Looney’s (1993)   corporate concept of ‘redesigning’ the work of education and Michael Hammer’s (1990, 2003) notion of ‘reengineering’ work. Both ‘redesigning’ and ‘reengineering’ require sectors like public education to break away from outdated rules and fundamental assumptions that underlie the way work is done and embrace radically new approaches to doing work. South Africa’s Department of Basic Education (DBE) needs to rethink its provision of public education to the African peoples, who were excluded from educational opportunities by the apartheid system.” (Moeketsi: 1993)

The nature of the South African education crisis as described by Moeketsi

  • South Africa’s education system has been described as ‘a crisis’ (Fleisch, 2008), ‘a national disaster’ (Bloch, 2009)
  • That is ‘in tatters’ (Monare, 2010),
  • Is ‘inefficient and makes ineffective use of resources’ (Simkins, Rule,& Bernstein, 2007),
  • And is ‘essentially dysfunctional’ (Taylor, 2006; Bloch, 2010).
  • The system performs poorly and lags behind even much poorer countries which spend less on education than South Africa functionality (van der Berg, 2008, 2007).
  • The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) (2006) posits that “, vulnerability, alienation and a lack of social cohesion characterize many of the township and rural schools”.
  • Dysfunctionality impacts negatively on the right to basic education.
  • Most learners in dysfunctional schools do not develop the requisite skills and attributes necessary to master reading and mathematics.
  • As a result the dropout rate is high.
  • Teachers are either unqualified or under-qualified; they do not spent enough time in class teaching (Chisholm et al., 2005).
  • Chisholm et al (2005) define actual teaching time as “time during which the teacher was engaged in teaching and learning activities” (p.168).
  • But even when teachers do spent time in class they use old methods of teaching;  
  • They are ill-prepared to implement the new curriculum because the classes are overcrowded, or they [the teachers] 
  • Are disconnected from the communities in which they teach.
  • Research on education in South Africa from 1998 to 2002 shows that “learners’ scores are far below what is expected at all levels of the schooling system, both in   relation to other countries (including other developing countries) and in relation to the expectations of the South African curriculum” (Taylor, Muller, &Vinjevold, 2003, p.14).
  • This is worrisome given that South Africa is a regional power in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
  • Recently South Africa has become a member of the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] countries and is classified as an upper-middle income country.
  • David Macfarlane (2011), education editor at the Mail & Guardian reported on shocking levels of literacy and numeracy in South African schools following the DBE’s release of the 2011 Annual National Assessment (ANA).
  • The ANA tested 6 (six) million learners between grades 1 to 6. The national literacy average performance of grade   3s was 35% while in numeracy it was 28%. Grade 6 national average performance in literacy was 28% while in numeracy it was 30%.
  • But as Macfarlane points out, these findings simply confirm the DBE’s own assessments in 2002, 2004, and 2007. They are also consistent with results from other international tests and evaluations in which South Africa participated.
  • The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) conducts research that supports the important role textbooks play in maximizing pupils’ reading literacy.
  • Launched in 1995  to  ascertain the quality of pupils’ reading literacy and mathematics scores in primary schools in Southern and Eastern African school systems, SACMEQ is a consortium of 15 Ministries of Education: Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar and Zimbabwe. Onlysix (6) education systems [Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania] achieved above the SACMEQ’s pupils mean score of 500 in both the 2000 and 2007 assessments (see Table 1). Eight (8) education systems[Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia,
  • South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zanzibar] have consistently performed below the SACMEQ’s pupils mean score of 500 during 2000 and 2007. Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia were substantially below the SACMEQ average for both reading and mathematics in 2000 and 2007, while Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, and Zanzibar had “mixed performance levels” (SACMEQ, 2010a).
  • Fleisch (2008) reviewed various studies on reading and mathematics achievement - the Monitoring Learning Achievement (MLA, 1999), the Early Reading Workshop (ERW, 1999), the Quality Learning Project (QPL, 2001), the District Development Support Program (DDSP, 2001), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 2003), the Family Literacy Project (FLP, 2004), the SACMEQ II 2005, and the Progress in International Reading Literary Study (PIRLS 2006).
  • The PIRLS 2006 assessment showed that the Russian Federation was the highest performing country, while South Africa was the lowest performing country (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, &Foy, 2007, p.38). South Africa scored lower than countries such as Kuwait and Morocco (Mullis et al, 2007, p.42). For Fleisch (2008, p.30), while the above studies used different ‘standards’ to measure achievement, they all point to the predicament of extremely low average primary education achievement levels.

The DBE (2012) released the report titled National School Monitoring Survey, whose survey was conducted in 2000 schools nationally. The survey considered factors that radically influence education quality  (Macfarlane, 2012). Seven of the quality indicators that were intensively investigated included: ‘curriculum coverage’, ‘access to textbooks and workbooks’, ‘school libraries’, ‘school management documents such as budget plans’, ‘school funding’, ‘physical infrastructure’, and support district offices offer schools’.

  • The report notes that coverage of the curriculum is uneven across the school. This is not new.
  • Research by the Human Sciences Research Council    (HSRC) found that generally South African teachers spent less time in class teaching (Chisholm et al, 2005; Makola, 2005).
  • Actual teaching time was conceived as “time during which the teacher was engaged in teaching and learning activities” (Chisholm et al, 2005, p.168). Chisholm et al (2005) note that “educators spend less than half the total  time that they spend in school-related activities on teaching: the average total time spent on all activities is 41 hours, whereas the average total spent on teaching per week is 16 hours” (p. 92).
  • Regarding to textbooks, the report notes that only 38% of the learners nationally have access to language textbooks. Some schools do not receive textbooks at all, and if they do, it is often too late or the books supplied are not enough.
  • The report is clear that the absence of textbooks exposes learners to fragments of the curriculum, presented through standalone worksheets or isolated short exercises.
  • At the time of writing (July 2012) the DBE was embroiled in a scandal over failure to deliver books to schools in the Provinces, something that should have been done in January.
  • Education research recognizes the importance of the availability of textbooks to learners’ educational achievement. SACMEQ (2010b, p.1) posits that when pupils have textbooks their teachers can make effective use of class time by avoiding tasks such as copying text onto the chalkboard. Textbooks permit teachers to utilize a wider range of teaching strategies such as: assigning reading exercises to the whole class while providing more focused teaching to slower learners; stimulating classroom discussions about material that has been read by all pupils, and providing reading homework and associated questions that reinforce classroom lessons. In developing countries’ schools “textbooks can play a central role in defining a more structured approach to what subject matter is taught and how it is taught”.
  • With regard to school libraries the vast majority of schools do not have libraries. Out of 24717 public schools in the country, 19465 (78.7%) do not have libraries.
  • With respect to school management documents the report notes that 58% of the schools were able to produce adequate management documents such as budget plans, attendance rosters, and mark records of students or annual reports. Yet only 34% of school principals reported that they   received ‘satisfactory’ support from district offices.
  • The report notes that the function of district offices is to provide an enabling environment for schools to function. District offices are supposed to assist school  principals  and teachers to improve the quality of learning and teaching. Schools cannot function well when their essential support structure is inadequate.
  • With respect to schools physical infrastructure the less said the better. It was noted above   that South Africa produced 71.7 % of SADC’s GDP. Yet primary schools learners in some provinces still study  under trees, in thatch houses or in shacks that leak when it rains.

Moeketsi rightfully then ask the question whether “the situation can be salvaged?

  • That South Africa’s education system is ‘a crisis’ does not necessarily mean it is beyond salvaging.
  • Neighboring countries like Mozambique (Pridmore &Yates, 2005) and Angola (Moreira, 2009), which have just emerged from decades of civil war, with enormous lose of human lives are developing education systems that are responsive to  their specific contexts with manifest aspirations for competitiveness.
  • South Africa has a vibrant education research community and is a regional economic super power, having recently become a member of the BRICS countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa]. The World Bank (2011) classifies South Africa as an upper-middle- income economy along with countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Argentina, Portugal, Malaysia, Chile, Panama, Russian Federation, and Portugal, to mention a few.
  • South Africa’s DBE acknowledges that the education system performs badly (Bloch, 2009; Fleisch, 2008; DoE, 2007a, 2007b;Carnoy&Chisholm, 2008; Chisholm et al, 2005).
  • What the department lacks is the capacity to implement the recommendations of this body of research. Visser (2012, p. 39) argues that “the senior management   of the department just does not have the experience, competence, ability or capacity to manage a massive system consisting of a bloated national education department, nine provincial departments, 81 district offices,  26  000 schools and 530 000 teachers providing learning to 12 million pupils, while it expends 20% of the total national budget”.
  • Jansen (2003, p.91) concurs: “The task of collapsing 19 education departments into a single, national department of education with nine different provincial departments was completely underestimated”. It can therefore be inferred that the DBE needs to return to the drawing board to ‘redesign’

“Presumed in the discourse of ‘redesigning’ and ‘reengineering’ is a radical shift from outdated modes of thinking to a completely new, often uncertain ways of doing work.

  • O’Looney (1993) argues that “at the heart of redesigning any education system is the notion of changing outdated rules and fundamental assumptions” (p.376). He further argues that “redesigning does not mean cutting fat or automating existing ways of doing things. Instead, it means re- examining assumptions and shedding rules of work that are based on outdated notions about technology, people, and organizational goals”. O’Looney (1993) suggests that “essentially, redesigning the process of creating and transmitting information within schools would empower teachers to teach the whole child. Specialists could be   called in on very complex problems but would more generally be used to update and adapt the expert systems as circumstances and new knowledge dictates” (p. 379).


  • Similarly Michael Harmer (1990) advocates a notion of corporate transformation which he calls ‘reengineering’. Teaming up with James Champy (2003) in their bestselling book: Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution they define ‘reengineering’ as the fundamental rethink and radical redesign of business  processes to generate dramatic improvements in critical performance measures – such as cost, quality, service and speed (Hammer &Champy, 2003). Hammer (1990) argues that “at the heart of reengineering is the notion of discontinuous thinking - of recognizing and breaking away from the outdated rules and fundamental assumptions   that underlie operations” (p. 4). Notice the similarity with O’Looney notion of ‘redesigning’ above. Hammer (1990, p.2) argues that ‘reengineering’ is an all-or-nothing proposition with an uncertain result. He writes: “instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should ‘reengineer’ our businesses by using the power of modern information technology to radically redesign our business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their performances”. This is because “reengineering strives to break away from the old rules about how we organize and conduct business. It involves recognizing and rejecting some of them and then finding imaginative new ways to accomplish work” (Hammer, 1990, p.2).


  • It was noted that the DBE is a massively bloated bureaucracy. Hammer (1990) would argue that such a bloated bureaucracy is a “breeding ground for tunnel vision, as people tend to substitute the narrow goals of their particular departments for the larger goals of the process as a whole” (p. 4). He would argue that it is “burdened with layers of unproductive overheads and armies of unproductive workers” (Hammer, 1990, p. 8). He would encourage the DBE  to ‘obliterate’ outdated structures and processes and replace them with new, revolutionary approaches that are more focused, outcomes-driven and more accountable. The point I am arguing is that such a streamlined structure would not only deliver on its education mandate, but would also be more accountable for its shortfalls.

Moeketsi concludes

“In this article I grappled with South Africa’s dysfunctional education system, which has been described as ‘a crisis’ and ‘a national disaster’ that performs poorly andlags far behind systems of much poorer neighboring African countries that spent much less on education. My agony is against the backdrop that South Africa boasts of a constitution that has been described as ‘of classic liberalism’, a ‘state of the art document’ that is ‘widely hailed as liberal and egalitarian’. I made a case for South Africa’s DBE to be ‘redesigned’ along the lines suggested by John O’Looney (1993) and to be ‘reengineered’ along the lines suggested by Michael Hammer (1990), and Michael Hammer & James Champy (2003). Both ‘redesigning’ and ‘reengineering’ call for a fundamental rethink and a radical redesign of business structures and processes to generate dramatic improvements. There is no doubt that  South Africa’s DBE needs to change. It needs to ‘redesign’ and ‘reengineer’ itself if it is to deliver quality education to the majority of previously disadvantaged African peoples who were systematically excluded from educational opportunities by the apartheid system.”

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