Seven costly mistakes

05 April 2012 - 07:42 By Jonathan Jansen

MAMPHELA Ramphele has nothing to lose. As a semi-retired older woman with a more than sufficient pension fund, she is not dependent on anyone, let alone the ruling party, for a job.

As a former activist with impeccable struggle credentials, she commands attention. So when the former World Bank vice-president says education was better under apartheid than it is today, more than a few angry politicians would be singing Umshini wami.

Is she right?

It is almost two decades since the start of a major shake-up to education in South Africa, and to understand the state of schools, colleges and universities today, we need to understand how we got here.

Of course, the long shadow of apartheid continues to haunt present-day education, especially with respect to the gross inequality that separates the top 20% of well-functioning, well-resourced public schools from the mess that constitutes the remaining 80% of schools.

But it would be disingenuous to blame this mess only on the apartheid legacy. We have had almost 20 years to begin fixing the problem.

What did we do, and fail to do, that madeRamphele issue this astounding claim? Specifically, what were the seven major mistakes made in education since the middle 1990s?

Mistake number one must be Outcomes-Based Education. Even government agrees it was a mistake, and who can forget the current basic education minister trying desperately to deny support for these sweeping curricular changes? But think of the costs financially and operationally. Almost 30000 schools were misled into thinking that, by adopting this complex curriculum plan, teaching and learning would improve. Instead, scholastic achievement is worse than ever, from literacy and numeracy in the foundation years to the disastrous National Senior Certificate results in Grade 12.

Mistake number two must be the indiscriminate voluntary severance packages offered to teachers at the dawn of democracy. To be fair, this hair-brained scheme started even before 1994, but the new government implemented it in an attempt to "right size" the teaching corps and save money. The result? The best teachers left the system. The teachers who remained behind, especially in the most disadvantaged schools, were in general those with weaker teaching qualifications and experience than those who left.

Mistake number three was closing good teacher education colleges. Let me be clear, some of the colleges had to be closed. Colleges in the homelands produced the worst teachers. But there were good colleges, like the Johannesburg College of Education, the Normaal Kollege Pretoria, the Giyani Teachers College and the Bellville Teachers College. But for a government with a reform hammer that sees all problems as nails, all the colleges were shut down or incorporated into universities. That was a mistake, for universities are not the best places for training primary school teachers.

Mistake number four was the irrational mergers of some universities that made absolutely no sense. The merger of Medunsa, a medical school in Pretoria, with the University of the North in Polokwane, made no sense for reasons of geographical, political and emotional distance. It should have been merged with the medical school at Tukkies, down the road, as was the case with the veterinary sciences.

Mistake number five was the merger of universities with technikons to constitute what government calls comprehensive universities. Ask 10 senior people in higher education what a comprehensive university is, and you will get 10 different answers. We decided on mergers for political reasons, and then, after the act, queried what we should call them. Technikons should have stayed as top-quality technical institutions offering world-class technical qualifications, not quasi-universities pretending to pursue university-type research.

Mistake number six was neglect of mother tongue instruction, especially in township schools. A solid foundation is required in the mother tongue to ease the later transition to the national universities. The black middle classes sent their children to non-mother tongue schools, in part to escape the tragedy of dysfunctional schools. In the process, our children lacked solid grounding in any language, a prerequisite for strong academic learning.

Mistake number seven was the failure to install basic minimum standards for school education which were legally enforceable. The legal notion of "adequacy" in the funding of schools that applies in countries like the US does not apply here. As a consequence, nobody can be held accountable for the huge discrepancies in infrastructure among different schools.

Through a combination of legacy, neglect and bad policy decisions, our educational institutions are indeed in a worse state than before.