In search of new thinking about one of our most pressing problems

Educationists evaluate the manifestos of SA's largest political parties


There have been many achievements in the South African education sector in the past 25 years, but the country still struggles to achieve a higher-quality education. As the elections approach, we analysed the education sections of the manifestos of the ANC, DA and EFF for new solutions to SA's problems.
All manifestos recognise the importance of a quality basic education, starting with early childhood development and education.
The long-term strategy for a quality education and improved achievement outcomes is to target the early years of learning. The first 1,000 days of a child's life focus largely on health interventions and we recommend the manifestos extend this to the next 1,000 days of schooling (grades RR, R, 1, 2 and 3) in order to build a solid knowledge foundation.
The EFF's promise to increase the subject pass mark from 30% to 50% could be a game-changer to improve learning outcomes. The department of basic education (DBE) progression requirement is 50% for home languages, 40% for most subjects and 30% for two subjects in grades 7 to 9 and three in grades 10 to 12.
The public and stakeholders characterise our education as a "30% pass-mark system". We argue that the pass mark for numeracy in the foundation phase be increased from 40% to 50%. This allows children to demonstrate knowledge of basic concepts in order to progress. This would signal raised expectations to pupils, teachers, schools and parents and be a shift from accepting mediocrity.
The EFF manifesto signals the importance of mathematics. Withholding mathematics from black people was a powerful apartheid tool for underdevelopment. Mathematics achievement is a signal of the ability of pupils to participate in society, to continue studying technical subjects and of the competencies available for the workplace.
This political signalling, especially to the youth, combined with the message of the effort required to develop this conceptual and analytical thinking, should be the key message at every election rally and subsequent government speeches.
All manifestos pledge to improve progression rates. The present crude throughput rate from grade 1 to grade 12 is 60%, with high levels of grade repetition. Grade repetition without additional support will not lead to better outcomes. The EFF pledges a remedial teacher for each school to help struggling pupils.
Predictably, all parties recognise the importance of qualified teachers with relevant subject-matter knowledge. The DA's promise to introduce specialist teacher training colleges for primary school educators resonates with the views of many stakeholders - a debate that should be reopened.
A competent teacher can function optimally in a school with good infrastructure and facilities. All political parties are committed to these inputs.
Educational inequalities begin in the home (three-quarters of households receive at least one government social grant) and continue in schools. All manifestos include social protection polices like the school nutrition and scholar transport schemes, especially for pupils in no-fee schools. In order to achieve higher-quality education, we need additional social protection for the poorer schools, like smaller class sizes and more teachers in the foundation phase.
Maternal education is an indicator of human and social capital and signals what parents are able to afford for their children. It is a key predictor of achievement. Thus, adult education programmes, promised in all manifestos, must be given prominence in SA's educational plan.
The EFF pledges the drastic step of criminalising parents who do not enrol their children in school. However, we have high enrolment rates for children to the age of 16 years. The challenge is the high levels of absenteeism among pupils (between 5% and 15%) and teachers (estimated around 10%).
Teacher absenteeism has an impact on pupil achievements. The manifesto is silent regarding programmes to decrease levels of absenteeism.
PREPARING FOR THE FUTUREAll manifestos respond to the digital revolution and its impact on education. They propose the introduction of coding and programming subjects (the DBE is piloting this subject), school internet connectivity and computer labs, online and digital platforms for learning, tablets to pupils, and technology-integrated schools and training colleges.Education must respond to technological changes, but we need to be cautious and not expect information and communication technologies to be the silver bullet to solve the educational challenges. The introduction of any technology must be accompanied by training and support so that teachers are able to implement these technologies in their classrooms.For an unequal country we must respond both to the skills needed to function in the digital environment (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication) as well as develop the basic 4Rs (reading, (a)rithmetic, (w)riting and reasoning).MOVING FROM INPUTS TO IMPLEMENTATIONThe government is often applauded for its progressive policies. However, the implementation of these policies still presents challenges.A major weakness of the manifestos is their silence on how to effectively implement the policies. Whichever policies emerge, the next five years must prioritise implementation and honestly evaluating the impact of the policies.• Reddy is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the Human Sciences Research Council's education and skills development research programme, in which Harvey is a PhD candidate. Sekhejane is a research specialist in the HSRC's Africa Institute of SA

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