No quick fix for the crisis in our schools

31 July 2011 - 04:10 By Dr Max Price and Dr Jonathan Clark.

The failure of outcomes-based education is just one factor that has led to the tragedy of a lost generation, write Dr Max Price and Dr Jonathan Clark.

The extent to which our school education system is in deep crisis cannot be over-emphasised. Historic and ongoing underfunding undoubtedly contribute to the poor performance of township and rural schools, but what is doubly disturbing is our performance relative to many of our much poorer neighbours.

How is it that these countries outperform us when they spend a fraction of what we do on education?

It is important to acknowledge that there are a multitude of causes that have contributed to the failure of public schools, not least of which are an all-pervasive set of societal factors.

Children who are hungry, or whose lives are challenged by domestic or community violence, or whose overcrowded home environment makes studying particularly difficult - these factors are important, but there is little the education system can do to alter those in the short or medium term.

We believe that factors internal to the education system carry the major responsibility for the schooling crisis and merit particular interventions because this can raise the quality of educational provision to black children in this country.

In this brief response, we focus on the ongoing changes and amendments to curriculums; the availability of learning and teaching materials such as text- and work-books; inadequate organisational support to teachers and the efficacy of the bureaucracy; the balance of power between the education departments, principals, teachers and unions, and teacher efficacy.

What then can be done?

Turning first to the issue of curriculums. The attempted implementation of outcomes-based education has been a particular failure. It may well be that the revised grade and subject-specific curriculum and assessment plans (CAPS) are an attempt to do just that. However, an unrealistic implementation time-frame and inadequate support programme leaves us worried that these latest reforms will also falter.

One understands the pressure to deliver curriculum fixes sooner rather than later in view of the tragedy of losing yet more school leavers.

However, we compromise much more and over many more years if we don't finally do it properly. We should rather address the "lost generation" whom we have failed over the past decade with specially designed and dedicated programmes to equip them for the world of work, while taking the time required to properly design and implement the new CAPS.

Second, the unreliable provision of teaching and learning materials says much about the efficacy of the educational bureaucracy in general, and the continuing failure of the state's provisioning systems in particular. At a recent meeting in the Cape metropole, a principal of a township primary school made an emotional appeal to education officials present because Foundation Phase workbooks had not been delivered as promised before the beginning of the school year but only in May.

It is important to note that this took place in a province which has one of the best functioning educational bureaucracies in the country. Explanations and excuses abound, but so far on from 1994 it is simply unacceptable that the state is unable to set up and run more effective provisioning systems.

The failure to deliver such pivotal resources also affects the morale of teachers and learners. If the provincial education departments cannot get this right themselves, they should outsource the logistics to the private or NGO sector.

The third factor is the inability or failure of the education departments to deliver on their core functions - whether this be the supply of learning materials, the provision of libraries, toilets, repair of windows and leaking roofs, maintenance of desks and infrastructure, rapid filling of vacant posts and efficient handling of disciplinary cases, or the support of teacher development. This failure not only compromises the functioning of the schools, it also compromises the relationship between the educational bureaucracy on the one hand, and the teachers on the other, because of the interdependence between accountability and support. When the state fails to deliver, its ability to demand accountability of principals and teachers is undermined.

The destruction of relations of authority, which was one of the consequences of schools becoming sites of struggle in the last two decades of apartheid rule, has had the most terrible consequences.

Attempts to reconstruct accountability systems and external controls have been further undermined by the power dynamics at play between a seemingly all-powerful teachers' union (Sadtu) and the state. Moreover, Sadtu's influence in the promotion and appointment of senior staff and principals who are or were union members, creates an ongoing conflict of interest for those in management positions.

Thus the resolution of the crisis in authority and management in our schools system requires government to restore political authority over schools in ways which will ensure that teachers and principals can be held to account.

In closing, with the experience of almost two decades behind us, we must now take the long view and accept once and for all that there are no quick fixes. Raising the quality of education in this country will take a generation, but if set on the right path, and with the necessary political will, we can produce steady incremental improvements.

There is reason for hope. For there are remarkable examples of schools serving poor communities which face all the same circumstantial and historical odds against their succeeding, yet which do work, and we know the ingredients of their success. These include credible, visionary and ethical leadership, strong management and internal accountability processes, detailed operational plans, commitment to staff development, and a focus on building a culture of teaching and learning. Perhaps most important of all, it needs a mindset of success.

  • Price is the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and Clark is the director of the Schools Development Unit in the School of Education at UCT. This article first appeared in