The great expectations of South African education

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In Great Expectations Magwitch says: “We can no more see to the bottom of the next few hours than we can to the bottom of this river.”

You could say the same about the future of South African education and the country itself, but despite all the variables, the immensity of the challenges facing our country forces anyone with a shred of humanity and common sense to still try and discern a constructive outcome in the murky water ahead.

 In 2011 South Africa had 496,090 grade 12 matriculants (final year of secondary schooling) who wrote the National Senior Certificate examinations. 70.2% passed the exams which does not seem too bad until it’s put into perspective: in 2000 there were 1, 035,192 grade 1 learners starting their school career. That means more than half – 539, 102 – never made it to the final year of schooling, which would translate to a real pass rate of only 34% in the National Senior Certificate exams.

To qualify for a National Senior Certificate, candidates had to offer a minimum of 7 subjects, achieve 40% or more in 3 subjects (one of the 3 subjects must be an official language at Home Language level), and a minimum rating of 30% or more in 3 other subjects. Compulsory subjects included: two official languages (including one at Home Language level), Mathematical Literacy or Mathematics, and Life Orientation.

It is indicative that 99.6% passed Life Orientation in the 2011 examinations, while only 46.3% passed mathematics at a 30% pass mark. If a higher pass mark of 50% was used for maths only 18.51% who wrote the subject would have passed and only 8.38% of the total number of candidates writing the NSC.

The Department of Basic Education’s Annual National Assessment monitors the quality and level of educational outcomes in the schooling system. The 2011 assessment of literacy and numeracy amongst grade 1-6 learners produced an overall average score of 30%.

The World Economic Forum rated South African primary school education as follow out of 144 countries: quality of teaching – 132nd; access to primary education – 115th; quality of science and mathematics teaching – 2nd last.

Only 16% of 18 – 24 year old South Africans have or are engaged in post-school education. 

South Africa’s budget for the 2012/2013 financial year allocates 20.5% of total government expenditure to education. At 5.72% of GDP it is one of the highest in the world.

So why the disparity between money spent and the worrisome NSC results?

Dedicated teacher training colleges were closed in the 1990’s due to the perceived uneven quality of training and the preference for university educated teachers in order to elevate their status. According to research done by the Centre for Development and Enterprise last year South Africa needs 25,000 new teachers every year in order to cope with pupil demand. A deficit of 15,000 per year. The government is currently reviewing the re-opening of some teacher training colleges.

There is a huge attrition of graduate teachers who either emigrate or take up other professions, resulting in a loss of thousands of teachers every year, deterred largely by low salaries and the poor image of the profession. The entry salary for a newly qualified teacher is currently R115,000 per annum. Available data suggests that South Africa provides most of the foreign teachers in the United Kingdom, with many also preferring to work in Australia, Canada and the USA. The South African government does not keep track of the number of teachers the country loses due to international recruitment. Conclusions are based on the immigration and teacher registration data in destination countries like the UK.

The introduction of outcome based education increased the administrative workload for teachers who were often ill-equipped to teach within the new educational paradigm. This meant more paperwork and meetings and less actual teaching.

The South African Human Sciences Research Council has estimated that 20% of teachers are absent on a Monday and a Friday. Absentee rates increase to 33% at month end. There is also a disturbingly high incidence of sexual harassment of pupils and alcohol abuse during school hours.

Many teachers in rural and poorer areas are under- or unqualified for the subjects they teach. This is often the result of unfilled teaching posts and multi-grade teaching.

The largest teachers’ union in the country, The South African Democratic Teacher’s Union, has distinguished itself as a bulwark against professionalism, productivity and accountability within the teachers’ profession. Most recently SADTU launched an attack on civil society organisations(NGOs) working in education, describing them as “imperialist neo-liberal forces”. Union meetings during teaching time and the implicit condoning of members’ extreme misconduct is commonplace. In 2010 on the eve of the end of year school exams SADTU’s prolonged strike action disrupted the education of more than 25% of the learners in South Africa. Numerous local strikes occur on a regular basis, often accompanied by intimidation of non-striking teachers. It is telling that SADTU prominently displays support for two political parties, the ANC and the South African Communist Party, on its website. The democratic right of individual members to support a political party of their own choice is completely ignored. It also confuses the function and role of a trade union by supporting political parties, especially when they form the government of the day with which the union is often in dispute.

Corruption, fraud and maladministration are rife in many provincial educational departments. Billions of rands are misappropriated or in some cases not spent at all. At the core lies a lack of accountability and the incompetence of administrators who are not qualified for their positions. The latest scandal involved the non-delivery and dumping of textbooks in Limpopo Province with education officials being accused of a range of offences from gross negligence to financial misconduct and fraud.

A School Governing Body (SGB) governs the management of its school. This includes budgeting, admissions and language of teaching. In a school that is registered as a section 21 company, the SGB is also responsible for the school’s finances. In a recent article by The Mail & Guardian, major SGB associations indicated that the vast majority of school governing bodies (SGB) are dysfunctional. SGB associations defined dysfunctional SGBs as those whose members lack the insight, skill or will to carry out their responsibilities. They blame dysfunctional performance on poor training provided by provincial departments, lack of resources, high levels of adult illiteracy and a lack of awareness of the roles of an SGB.

According to the International Monetary Fund South Africa had a 22.89% official unemployment rate in 1994, the year of our first democratic elections. In the 3rd quarter of 2012 it was 25.5%. Note that the official unemployment rate is defined as the number of people actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force. The unemployment rate jumps to 33.8% if the number of disenchanted are factored in, while informal estimates put unemployment as high as 40%.

There seems to be a huge disparity between job opportunities for skilled labour and that for unskilled labour. Low standards and low pass rates in critical subjects like maths at NSC level contribute to a high failure rate at university level. Universities are being put under tremendous pressure by government to facilitate the graduation of candidates with substandard levels of numeracy and literacy skills. This means that employers are more wary than ever to employ someone purely based on tertiary qualifications. In addition several professional bodies also restrict entry into certain professions (law, medical, accounting) by setting their own criteria, making it more difficult for graduates to find work. Labour market analysts estimate that there are currently about 600, 000 unemployed university graduates in South Africa. This despite the fact that 3 South African universities make up the top 3 African universities according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The three universities, University of Cape Town, University of Stellenbosch and the University of the Witwatersrand also made the top 275 on the global list, with UCT rated no 103 globally.

The glaring fact is that South African education is split into two worlds, one on par with the best in the world, producing quality foundation learning and providing access to top tertiary education, the other (making up the vast majority) is perpetually hamstrung by incompetent/dishonest administrators, ineffectual teaching and industrial action by teacher trade unions.

So what are the possible solutions?

More money will not solve the issues confronting SA education. Accountability, access to quality education and a sincere, honest approach to the challenges will.


Educational administrators need to be held accountable for every rand spent. This does not only mean that fraud and corruption should be dealt with in the harshest possible terms, but that gross incompetence and negligence should be rooted out in an expedient and transparent fashion. Employ administrators who can do the job and forget about political expediency. What comes first, children’s future or keeping your position in the political system? (read gravy train). Financial systems should be strictly adhered to, budgets and forecasts diligently followed up and reported on. Supply lines, delivery and tender processes should be streamlined and subjected to regular statutory forensic audits. The South African Revenue service has an excellent performance record, learn from them.

Similar measures should be put in place to audit teacher efficacy, productivity and performance on a regular basis, with resulting rewards and consequences. This process should start at teacher training level holding the lecturers at tertiary institutions also accountable.

Education should be declared an essential or even strategic sector. Curb the rights of teacher unions as unpopular as the prospect seems. The bottom line is, what is more important, the right of teacher unions to strike willy-nilly and hold government to ransom over the slightest issue, or the basic human right of a child to a good education? Gross misconduct by individual teachers should be dealt with expediently and severely.

Willingness from government to enforce the above is paramount. If the electorate is educated about government responsibility and the crucial role that education plays in children’s lives it may remove the political aspect from the current dialogue and make government more accountable. There is a role for NGOs to play in this respect. The political aspect of teaching should be diluted by comprehensive information shared with parents clearly describing the path to educational and eventually vocational success. The electorate (parents) need to hold themselves accountable in the last instance if they allow a government to put the future well being of their children at risk. The time for pseudo-loyalty to a political party is over. Its time for everyone to grow up a bit and take responsibility.

Access to quality education:

Teachers need to be properly trained for the subjects they are teaching. Plugging the dam wall with ineffectual, under qualified teachers will only exacerbate the current issues.

An innovative initial approach would be to send expert teachers to train struggling teachers in under-performing schools. Teachers should be regularly academically tested on school subjects in order to identify competency issues. An example would be a biennial exam in order to review teaching licences and enforce minimum competencies

Performance based remuneration should be scientifically calibrated and audited to ensure that good work gets rewarded and prevent abuse of the system, e.g. by just passing learners. The over-emphasis on the NSC exam should be reconsidered, by focusing on all grades. Exams for each grade should conform to a high international standard with oversight by external bodies.

The administrative burden of teachers should be lightened extensively. Teachers should be teaching, not kept busy filling in forms and attending time sapping meetings. The basics, literacy and numeracy, should be the number one priority when looking at budget allocation, teacher performance and exam standards.

Get rid of the top heavy administrative component in education with special reference to how the annual educational budget is allocated. The current duplication of administrative capacity in the respective provinces should be investigated.

 An honest, sincere approach:

There seem to be a few elephants in the room when discussing education in South Africa. The inability and often unwillingness to follow a depoliticised and pragmatic approach to education is worsening an already dire situation. Apartheid is to blame for some of the ills in education, any sober person knows that. There is however ample evidence that government policy, lack of accountability and inaction have contributed massively to the current scenario. Many of the best and brightest teachers and educational administrators have relocated overseas to pursue better remuneration, better career advancement and better work conditions. The overarching policies of Black Economic Empowerment, inflexible labour laws and political expediency have usurped the educational needs of the country’s children. The pretence of educational research, congresses and continuous revising of the curriculum does not translate into excellence in the classroom. There seems to be a culture of celebrating mediocrity in stead of gearing South African intellectual capital for excellence on the world stage.

Hard decisions need to be made.

Outcome based education was a failure partly because it did not instil basic numeracy and literacy skills in children at the formative stage. Rote learning and regular traditional examinations in the early grades is the only proven way to build a solid foundation for future study.

600, 000 university graduates are unemployed while there is a shortage of 15,000 new teachers per year. If a Bachelor of Arts graduate can not teach basic language and number skills to a 10 year old there is something seriously wrong at our universities. Bridging courses and incentives for unemployed graduates to teach basic education should be a priority.

Discipline in the whole educational system is shocking. From administrative level to classroom level there is a culture of laziness and self entitlement at huge cost to productivity and professionalism. Strict sanctions should be enforced within defined parameters. Absenteeism can not be tolerated. Three strikes and you are out should be implemented. Time frames for specific job completion should be put in place with consequences for non-adherence. Gross misconduct and criminality should be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law.

English as the de-facto language of commerce and tertiary study in South Africa dictates that it should be the language of instruction at school. Fully bilingual teachers in formative grades should be focused on preparing children in English language proficiency so that all subjects in subsequent grades can be presented in English. Cultural sensitivities about the language of instruction ignore the realities of the job market.

Libraries, virtual or bricks and mortar, have to be one of the biggest budget focuses. With the price of tablets coming down amidst bigger competition, an innovative approach to the scarcity of functioning libraries at South African schools is needed.

The same applies to Information Communications Technology training at schools. India has recently launched the Aakash 2 tablet-based national education project, rolling out tablets to students at a government subsidised cost of $20 per tablet. Providing half of South Africa’s 12,400,000 learners with a $40 tablet would cost $248 million out of a current educational budget of $23 billion. Solar cells could solve charging issues. Backlit screens would enable night time study. Furthermore the prevalence of cellphone usage in South Africa has demystified a lot of the technology.

Structural challenges regarding the digital divide should also be addressed: currently 17% of the population has internet access compared to 42% in Brazil and 62% in Malaysia. South Africa’s average download speed as per the Net Index Household Download Index is 3.36Mbps, 122nd out of 180 countries, and much lower than the global average of 12.43 Mbps. The Net Index Value Index compares and ranks consumer broadband value around the globe. The median monthly cost in US dollars per Megabit per second is $37.86 for South Africa compared to the global average of $8.84. What action plans are in place to increase affordable, high-speed internet access? What is being done about monopolies in the telecommunications market?

Increased incentives for performing teachers should be awarded in a uniform fashion and according to strict guidelines. What gets done gets rewarded. In conjunction viable career paths should be available to all teachers. The example of specialist teachers coaching struggling teachers has already been mentioned. Quality teachers should not be lost to administrative functions. Excellence in teaching should be more prominently celebrated according to strict academic criteria.

Teachers graduating at a South African tertiary institution should be retained within the South African schooling system. Government agreements with the major countries of migration should limit the poaching of South African teachers by overseas institutions as long as it’s balanced by an improvement in performance related remuneration, working conditions and career options. This requires proper documentation by government of the number of teachers migrating and why they are migrating.

Communities with performing schools need to come to the realisation that a protectionist, exclusive and insular attitude is not to the benefit of anyone. The more children fall through the educational cracks, the higher the damage to the country’s economy. A rise in unemployable school leavers puts a bigger strain on social grants, which means the well off pay higher taxes. Higher unemployment also leads to a bigger incidence of social ills, which once again puts more pressure on the tax payer and general stress levels. South Africa can not afford any form of educational snobbery, what is needed is an egalitarian push for excellence and equal access.

Communities with under-performing schools also need a reality check. Voting into power a government which does not hold itself accountable creates an environment conducive to mediocrity, corruption and non-delivery of essential services, and is tantamount to betraying the future of every child in those communities.

A final word from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.” 

9 thoughts on “The great expectations of South African education

  1. I’m only plugging this because it is free, genuinely free! Having lectured at university level for the past 28 years I was disturbed at the declining level of numerical skills of students entering the university. To address this problem I wrote a computer program called Numberwise which comprises a structured course. A colleague and I tested the program in the civil engineering department of the Durban University of Technology. The results were dramatic, so much so that Numberwise has since been incorporated into the civil engineering curriculum. The average mark of students coming into the university has been 30%, yet all who complete the course get 90% or more for the final assessment test.

    Here’s the good news! Numberwise is free for anyone to use (schools or individuals). Not only is it free but students can even win prizes such as a Blackberry smartphone. I highly recommend that all computer teachers at primary school register for Numberwise and thereafter get the children to do the Numberwise Course. Being a structured course, there is no work on the part of the teacher. For more information, please visit the website: And PLEASE pass on the news about Numberwise as our goal is to improve the standards of education in South Africa.

  2. Excellent writing to convey a number of points that people either aren’t aware of, or are unwilling to speak up about. I agree especially with the point about cultural sensitivities in regards to preparing the youth for a largely English speaking world. South Africa is not an economic giant that can afford to be nitpicky about how the business world communicates. The combined mentality of a child throwing its toys out of the cot because things aren’t exactly perfect is poisoning our society at the time when we can least afford it. This is an excellent and insightful article with properly sourced resources is an incredibly refreshing read

  3. Having taught at a rural school I can testify that this article is spot on. Share it with as many people as you can.

  4. I agree with Liza and Adam. I would like to add, though, that the right people need to see these figures read this article and face the facts. We all need to play our part and this article should be a wake-up call to all of us, but someone in government needs to take responsibility for changing this situation (hopefully before the bubble bursts). Get rid of the baggage and solve the problem (which includes ineffective leadership). It’s actually irrelevant how we got to this point. Blame is a waste of time and time is the one thing we don’t have. The important thing now is to solve this crisis – wake up and smell the dust bin. I loved your article.

  5. I’m sure there are teachers who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, but unfortunately anecdotal evidence suggests that ‘overachievers’ are intimidated, as to not raise expectations. A shift in mindset by all parties is also required, as evidenced by recent events where parents and pupils, protesting lack of enough classrooms, burnt down existing structures.

  6. Congratulations! Excellent article! I would love to see this knowledge spread and bring huge change to our country and it’s future! We desperately need to address these issues!

  7. Very informative & brilliantly written. Thank you for a very comprehensive article. It is high time we sit up and give these highlighted issues real attention.

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