South African public schools: the good, the bad, the best. Part two

I think we may have forgotten just how divided we were in the past. Under apartheid, there were 18 different departments of education. One Department of Education with no operational function, and then 10 bantustan departments, one House of Delegates department for Indian education, one House of Representatives department for coloured education, the Department of Education and Training for non-bantustan black education, and four white provinces each with their own education department and matric exam. Joining these into a single department was no easy feat. And then the next achievement was creating a common matric exam, which only happened in 2008. From 1994 to 2002, each of the nine provinces set their own exams. From 2002 to 2007 the number of exams set nationally grew slowly to 11, with the rest being set provincially. It was only in 2008 that all question papers were set nationally. Before 2008, there was really no matric baseline for making either internal or external comparisons.

 

We have successfully moved away from the structures of the past. The content of the past is still more with us than we would wish. Many of the teachers in our schools today were trained under Bantu education. In Bantu Education schools, you could be a teacher with only standard 6 (grade 8) and a teaching diploma. As late as 1993, as we were moving into full democracy, 13% of teachers in black schools had a qualification of matric or lower and no teaching qualification, and 32% had matric and less than 3 years teaching qualification. Only 7% had degrees[3]. Some of the teaching qualifications offered by teacher training colleges were good; some were awful.[4]

 

And it’s not just the qualifications that matter. It’s the concept of what education ought to be. Cynthia Kros in her book the Seeds of Separate Development, which came out in 2010, describes some of the painful effects of Bantu Education she notices in her current university classes.

 

“ Bantu Education [she writes] continues to exercise its brain-numbing potency, transmitted by new generations of hapless teachers.

 

I have [says Kros] taught many students battling to overcome the treacherous legacy of Bantu Education. What this means, I think, from my work with them, is that they have been deprived of essential language skills; their reading and writing abilities have been almost irredeemably stunted by the time they come to the university. They have been so conditioned to rote learning and authoritarian styles of teaching that, at first, they can make no sense of a question that asks for critical evaluation or an argued response. ”[5] ( p xiii)

 

We may still be locked in the challenge of teaching some of our teachers how to think critically. But we have made great strides in demanding critical thinking from our matric learners. The many curriculum changes we have been through have been terribly bad for teachers, and for teaching. But they have produced a good challenging curriculum, replacing rote learning with critical thinking.

 

But, there is a dark side. The critical thinking embedded in today’s matric examination must be expressed in English. And while we have upped the demands to analyse and think critically, we have failed dismally in giving our children the language tools in which to answer these critical questions. Time and again, tutors working at matric level tell me: when a question is explained to a learner, the learner says “Oh, is that what they want to know?? Oh, I know that.” And indeed they do know it. But they can’t say it, and they don’t even recognise that that is what is being asked for.

 

I’m not going to go into the extremely complex area of mother tongue, and language of teaching and learning. Except to note that teaching and learning in a classroom where 10 different languages are spoken, sometimes between the beginning and end of a single sentence, presents a challenge we have ducked most spectacularly. Perhaps this is also something we can tackle in the discussion period at the end of this presentation.

 

Part of the Bantu Education past we come from is poorly educated teachers, and an impoverished curriculum. But part of Bantu education was its omission: despite its name – Bantu education – the system simply did not educate black learners. Have we made progress here? Undoubtedly. In 1955, 259 black learners passed matric. In 2012, 299,019 passed. However, it’s important to note that this growth did not start in 1994. The massification of education in South Africa started in the mid 1970s. In 1970 the number of black learners passing matric was 1000, in 1980 it was 15 000, in 1990 it was 100 000, in 2003 it was 200 000[6] and in 2013 it was 300 000.[7]

 

 Some of the problems we have had to overcome in the past 20 years  are historical; some are current. Poverty is a current problem, affecting anything from 20 – 50% of the population, depending on which figures you choose. Poverty is the single factor that makes educational success hardest to achieve, right around the world. For example, if you put the 2009 PISA scores (that is reading, mathematics and science literacy) of all American students in schools where the poverty rate is higher than 75% _ that is, more than 75% of students qualify for free lunch –  together, their average scores are below every participating OECD country except Mexico? (Conversely, Americans at state schools with poverty levels below 10%, as a group, achieve the highest 2008 TIMMS (maths and science) scores in the world) This is not just an American quirk; research shows similar patterns in Australia too.[8]

 

Despite the difficulties of educating poor children, in 2013. 78 000  South African learners in quintiles 1,2 and 3, learners at no-fee schools, passed matric at Bachelor’s level. Just to put this into context, 65 000 learners in quintiles 4 and 5 passed at Bachelors level. Bear in mind that the quintiles do not contain equal numbers of learners; quintiles 4 and 5 hold about 11% of learners.

 

It is possible for poorer learners to start showing this kind of achievement because of the main thing we have got right: access. More or less every young South African who should be in school, up to the age of 16, which is the official school-leaving age, is in school.

 

It would be wrong, though, to measure our progress just in numbers. We are moving away not just from the deprivations of Bantu Education, but from the terrible values of both Bantu Education and Christian National Education. On this journey we are both protected and challenged by our constitution.  I would like to end by reading from Edwin Cameron’s new book; Justice.

 

 

In this excellent book , which I highly recommend, Cameron discusses Chief Justice Pius Langa’s judgements on diversity in South African schools. In a society seriously committed to inclusiveness, wrote Chief Justice Langa, conformity must yield in favour of the richness of otherness. Diversity is not just decorative, Cameron warns us, but then he heartens us by explaining that the judgement does more than admonish and instruct. It invites us to join the journey joyfully, because diversity is something to be celebrated, not feared.[9]

 

 

We are on a journey. We are making progress on our journey. The challenge is here: to make the journey a joyful one.

 

Dr Gillian Godsell

 

Wits School of Governance

So much for the best of the best. What about the rest? How successfully is the state education system as a whole overcoming the problems of the past, and are the solutions to those problems moving us in the right direction?

I think we may have forgotten just how divided we were in the past. Under apartheid, there were 18 different departments of education. One Department of Education with no operational function, and then 10 bantustan departments, one House of Delegates department for Indian education, one House of Representatives department for coloured education, the Department of Education and Training for non-bantustan black education, and four white provinces each with their own education department and matric exam. Joining these into a single department was no easy feat. And then the next achievement was creating a common matric exam, which only happened in 2008. From 1994 to 2002, each of the nine provinces set their own exams. From 2002 to 2007 the number of exams set nationally grew slowly to 11, with the rest being set provincially. It was only in 2008 that all question papers were set nationally. Before 2008, there was really no matric baseline for making either internal or external comparisons.

 

We have successfully moved away from the structures of the past. The content of the past is still more with us than we would wish. Many of the teachers in our schools today were trained under Bantu education. In Bantu Education schools, you could be a teacher with only standard 6 (grade 8) and a teaching diploma. As late as 1993, as we were moving into full democracy, 13% of teachers in black schools had a qualification of matric or lower and no teaching qualification, and 32% had matric and less than 3 years teaching qualification. Only 7% had degrees[1]. Some of the teaching qualifications offered by teacher training colleges were good; some were awful.[2]

 

And it’s not just the qualifications that matter. It’s the concept of what education ought to be. Cynthia Kros in her book the Seeds of Separate Development, which came out in 2010, describes some of the painful effects of Bantu Education she notices in her current university classes.

 

“ Bantu Education [she writes] continues to exercise its brain-numbing potency, transmitted by new generations of hapless teachers.

 

I have [says Kros] taught many students battling to overcome the treacherous legacy of Bantu Education. What this means, I think, from my work with them, is that they have been deprived of essential language skills; their reading and writing abilities have been almost irredeemably stunted by the time they come to the university. They have been so conditioned to rote learning and authoritarian styles of teaching that, at first, they can make no sense of a question that asks for critical evaluation or an argued response. ”[3] ( p xiii)

 

We may still be locked in the challenge of teaching some of our teachers how to think critically. But we have made great strides in demanding critical thinking from our matric learners. The many curriculum changes we have been through have been terribly bad for teachers, and for teaching. But they have produced a good challenging curriculum, replacing rote learning with critical thinking.

 

But, there is a dark side. The critical thinking embedded in today’s matric examination must be expressed in English. And while we have upped the demands to analyse and think critically, we have failed dismally in giving our children the language tools in which to answer these critical questions. Time and again, tutors working at matric level tell me: when a question is explained to a learner, the learner says “Oh, is that what they want to know?? Oh, I know that.” And indeed they do know it. But they can’t say it, and they don’t even recognise that that is what is being asked for.

 

I’m not going to go into the extremely complex area of mother tongue, and language of teaching and learning. Except to note that teaching and learning in a classroom where 10 different languages are spoken, sometimes between the beginning and end of a single sentence, presents a challenge we have ducked most spectacularly. Perhaps this is also something we can tackle in the discussion period at the end of this presentation.

 

Part of the Bantu Education past we come from is poorly educated teachers, and an impoverished curriculum. But part of Bantu education was its omission: despite its name – Bantu education – the system simply did not educate black learners. Have we made progress here? Undoubtedly. In 1955, 259 black learners passed matric. In 2012, 299,019 passed. However, it’s important to note that this growth did not start in 1994. The massification of education in South Africa started in the mid 1970s. In 1970 the number of black learners passing matric was 1000, in 1980 it was 15 000, in 1990 it was 100 000, in 2003 it was 200 000[4] and in 2013 it was 300 000.[5]

 

 Some of the problems we have had to overcome in the past 20 years  are historical; some are current. Poverty is a current problem, affecting anything from 20 – 50% of the population, depending on which figures you choose. Poverty is the single factor that makes educational success hardest to achieve, right around the world. For example, if you put the 2009 PISA scores (that is reading, mathematics and science literacy) of all American students in schools where the poverty rate is higher than 75% _ that is, more than 75% of students qualify for free lunch –  together, their average scores are below every participating OECD country except Mexico? (Conversely, Americans at state schools with poverty levels below 10%, as a group, achieve the highest 2008 TIMMS (maths and science) scores in the world) This is not just an American quirk; research shows similar patterns in Australia too.[6]

 

Despite the difficulties of educating poor children, in 2013. 78 000  South African learners in quintiles 1,2 and 3, learners at no-fee schools, passed matric at Bachelor’s level. Just to put this into context, 65 000 learners in quintiles 4 and 5 passed at Bachelors level. Bear in mind that the quintiles do not contain equal numbers of learners; quintiles 4 and 5 hold about 11% of learners.

 

It is possible for poorer learners to start showing this kind of achievement because of the main thing we have got right: access. More or less every young South African who should be in school, up to the age of 16, which is the official school-leaving age, is in school.

 

It would be wrong, though, to measure our progress just in numbers. We are moving away not just from the deprivations of Bantu Education, but from the terrible values of both Bantu Education and Christian National Education. On this journey we are both protected and challenged by our constitution.  I would like to end by reading from Edwin Cameron’s new book; Justice.

 

 

In this excellent book , which I highly recommend, Cameron discusses Chief Justice Pius Langa’s judgements on diversity in South African schools. In a society seriously committed to inclusiveness, wrote Chief Justice Langa, conformity must yield in favour of the richness of otherness. Diversity is not just decorative, Cameron warns us, but then he heartens us by explaining that the judgement does more than admonish and instruct. It invites us to join the journey joyfully, because diversity is something to be celebrated, not feared.[7]

 

 

We are on a journey. We are making progress on our journey. The challenge is here: to make the journey a joyful one.

 

Dr Gillian Godsell

 

Wits School of Governance

 

Talk given at Serious Social Investing 2014. GIBS

 

 

 

 

 


[1] South African Institute of Race Relations survey 1994/1995

[2] Linda Chisholm (2010) The debate about re-opening Teacher Education Colleges. Focus: Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation (56) 14 – 20

[3] Cynthia Kros (2010) The seeds of Separate Development; Origins of Bantu Education. Unisa Press. Pretoria.

[4] South African Institute of Race Relations: 2013 survey

[5] National Senior Certificate Examination Technical Report

[6] Berliner, DC (2013); Effects of Inequality and poverty vs Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth. Teacher’s College Record, 15 (12).

[7] Cameron,E (2014) Justice; A Personal Account.Cape Town. Tafelberg.

 

 

 

 

 

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