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10 March 2021
OPINION: Six Moves to Unmask Basic Education in South Africa

We should congratulate the disenfranchised families, learners and school communities who had to face the daunting challenges of 2020 without access to the internet and devices, challenging living and schooling conditions, uncertainty and realities most of us don’t even know about. At the same time, we have to spare a thought for those learners who had dropped out of school amid their current challenges. 

Although the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results are the barometer for success at the end of Grade 12, it can be misleading to use it as a yardstick for the overall state of the schooling system. It is but one indicator.

Despite the acceptable achievements, we however, have the responsibility to remain critical towards the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and government in general for lacking strategic vision for the schooling system as Covid-19 cannot be blamed for all challenges and the drop in pass rates for Grade 12. Some provinces experienced an almost 10% drop in the pass rate. 

Many problems existed long before the pandemic and resultant lockdowns. For example, the throughput rate of the 2020 class is only 44,1%, meaning that of those learners starting school in 2008, this small percentage passed matric in 2020. 

The reality is there are many obtrusive and persisting challenges in the basic education system. Although well documented, these challenges are being marginalised by the DBE in the quality education discourse in South Africa. 

In the same way, for instance, the pre-COVID challenges remain, and the performance contours still favour the privileged of our society, as an analysis of the 2020 NSC results will demonstrate. 

This is where I believe the ‘masking’ of basic education is taking place. The pandemic should not distract from the progressive thought to restructure the basic education system towards life-worthiness, nor can it be purported as an excuse not to attend to the challenges facing us.

Metaphorically it is time to ‘unmask’ this convenient masking and grab the opportunity to reimagine a schooling system to really change learners’ lives when in school and after completion of Grade 12. 

I suggest six immediate moves, underpinned by research done over the last 10 years across the schooling sector, through the lens of real freedoms (capability approach). These moves will imply that we keep the good practices, stop the debilitating practices and start new practices:

• A revisit of the policy, administration, teaching structure and support services of the education system is well overdue. This exercise should direct and, where necessary, redirect the overall movement of the schooling system. As an example, I doubt if the 23 mission statements of the education system are all still valid. With due respect and admiration to our political and educational thinkers of the 1990’s, society has changed in ways we could not have imagined 25 years ago. There are too many vague aspirations encapsulated in these mission statements, too little connection with the current realities of school communities and a lack of a functional machinery to implement and drive it efficiently. Such a review has big implications for the stakeholders as it must pervade the total education system and can be time consuming. 

However, best practice indicates that such a review should be done once every decade.

  • We are faced with the conundrum of the quality education rhetoric in the schooling system. Without a shared understanding of what we regard as quality education in the schooling system, I believe that quality education will keep evading us on a basic level. To my knowledge, there is no shared understanding of quality education, and therefore, we are experiencing schooling in different worlds in the same public system. Such a shared understanding should first be conceptualised nationally, and the consultation process should be cascaded down into the provinces, regions, districts, circuits and schools. Vertical and horizontal consultations must characterise the conceptualisation, and indicators to underscore this understanding should be framed in a way to support progressive teaching and learning and not morph into a measuring exercise only. 
  • Striking a healthy balance between tried and tested best practices in education and educational advancement should be encouraged in the schooling system. For example, the most advanced calculations still require a basic understanding of related concepts and formulas. In the same vein, teaching methodologies move and vary on the continuum of avoidance-containment-and risk-taking. Teachers understand this reality very well and must be given the freedom to move around this continuum to foster the best possible learning experience for learners, expanding on freedoms that are contextual, but aligned to the healthy balance and praxis we are pursuing. 
  • A deep analysis of the schooling system indicates a lack of authentic innovation in the leadership and management of the system on various levels. If the systemic assessments we participated in for the last 10 odd years indicated that learners in smaller classrooms perform better across the spectrum of contexts, why are we keeping foundation and intermediate phase classrooms so big? Some calculations indicate that if we appoint two more foundation phase teachers, one language teacher and one mathematics teacher in the intermediate phase of large primary schools, we can bring down these classes to under 30 learners per class. Using the ‘masking’ excuse of resources is not holding anymore, and a country serious about improving these three key performance areas should do what is necessary to ensure improvement. All other efforts over the last 25 years had very little impact. Time to innovate smartly. 
  • Stopping the obtrusive debilitating practices that emanate from outdated policy directives should start (with immediate effect). We cannot allow more learners in our system to be subjected to such practices. Global research in language development clearly shows that learners should switch to a second (foreign) language for teaching much later than Grade 4. Moving into Grade 4 is such a sensitive experience - as learners move from the foundation phase to the intermediate phase, new school subjects are introduced, the time-table changes dramatically and pedagogical expectations are high, even for the Grade 4 teachers. Expecting almost 80% of our Grade 3 learners to switch has proven not to serve them well at all. Many assessments conducted, provincially, nationally and internationally, indicated that this practice haunts our learners for the rest of their schooling years and, I would argue, even beyond Grade 12. I am using this example as it pervades the vast majority of our schools. Many more come to mind, e.g. the progressing policy, appointment of teachers, lack of transformation, the worthiness of the curriculum, the articulation of subjects, the target-setting exercise to assessments, the two schooling systems within one public system, etc.
  • Lastly, the pandemic has shown that science and research should lead the way forward. The DBE needs to strengthen all its national and provincial directorates to lead the schooling system into the future. All the research being done in faculties of education should be available to the DBE, and a nexus should be established to inform provincial and national leadership. Research advisory bodies (RABs) in each province might be a good way for researchers to stay independent and serve the country in a structured way. The configuration of these RABs must be led by joint teams of the DBE and research entities and higher education faculties.

In conclusion, we have to realise that the pandemic provided us with immense opportunities to respond intellectually to our temporal and spatial realities. Meaningful engagements should guide the schooling system to generate political will, and recognise and exploit the importance of creativity, re-imagination, self-regulation, reflection and selflessness. Our moral consciousness must underscore our efforts to become trusted partners in sense-making for our youth’s future, and I believe these six moves will start to reshape the destinies of our learners and their families.

Professor Rouaan Maarman is the Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Education Faculty.