THE cumulative attempts to re-engineer our education system in post-apartheid South Africa are, essentially, a tale of errors. Although well-meaning, the political principals responsible for transforming education have for the past 18 years mainly dealt with the form, not the substance of education.
Of all the ministers of education, Dr Sibusiso Bengu attempted to scratch the surface of substantive transformation at school level, by introducing Curriculum 2005. This curriculum formed the basis of the now discredited Outcomes-Based Education system.
Overwhelmed by the political imperative to transform education, Bengu hastened to introduce a new curriculum without firstly considering the training of teachers and resourcing of schools – which is a sine qua non for the success of any education system. This was his gross error.
When he took the baton, the late Professor Kader Asmal channelled his energies towards the form rather than the substance of education. His merging of historically advantaged and disadvantaged institutions with the hope that this would redress past injustices made theoretical sense, although it was practically erroneous.
In practice, there has not been a substantive transfer of resources from formally white to black institutions of learning.
Asmal’s decision to close teacher training colleges later proved to be a heavy price for South Africa to pay. We can no longer cope with the demand for teachers at our schools.
Her passion and zeal for teaching values through education notwithstanding, Minister Naledi Pandor’s attempt to introduce a school’s pledge was also erroneous. Her proposal for a daily rendition of the pledge was out of step with democratic principles and incongruent with contemporary methods of teaching and learning.
The new Ministers of Education, Angie Motshekga and Blade Nzimande, individually and collectively represent an era of policy incoherence and confusion. The decision to split the Ministry of Education into Basic and Higher Education was ill-conceived and does not address the substance of education. This separation implies a disconnect between what happens in primary schools and universities.
There is a direct relationship between the quality of education at the foundation level and the success of students in tertiary institutions. As world-renowned Pan-Africanist scholar, Professor Ali Mazrui correctly observes, “no university… can be a first class institution of learned inquiry if the training schools that feeds into it are all mediocre”. Hopefully our ministers of education will learn!
Motshekga will be recorded in world history as the first minister of education who had no confidence in the role of education in leadership. Her statement that “education is not a necessary requirement for leadership” was not only bizarre; it contradicted President Nelson Mandela’s profound philosophy on education. Mandela said “It is through education … that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become a president of a great nation.”
A dilemma is therefore imposed on our youth: Who to choose between, Motshekga and Mandela?
The consequences of having a minister of education who has no confidence in education are dire for any society that has aspirations of building a globally competitive economy. Society loses interest in education. Not long, state institutions start to manufacture excuses to appoint chief executives who don’t have their matric.
Motshekga will also be remembered as the minister under whose leadership South Africa experienced a dramatic 7.2 percent increase in matric results. However, the credibility of the results and quality of the pass is still viewed with suspicion. The obsession with the quantity rather than the quality of the passes does not address the substance of our education.
Meanwhile, in the newly created Ministry of Higher Education and Training, Nzimande has, in the short space of two and half years, already proved himself to be the climax of the tale of errors.
Consider, for example, the statement made by Nzimande in August 2009, about possibly lowering admission requirements for our universities. He has since not gone public to defend his statement. It is only recently, in February 2012, that four of his spin doctors at a research organisation tried, albeit in vain, to defend his policy of lowering of admission requirements.
The understanding of curriculum related issues by Nzimande also leaves much to be desired. He is on record lamenting to a weekend newspaper that university education only teaches capitalist theory, and doesn’t expose students to alternative intellectual outlooks such as Marxism. This is too limited a view on curriculum matters; it only applies partially to humanities. How, for example, would the minister propose the alignment of geometry, climatology, astronomy, biochemistry, human anatomy with Marxism?
Having understood the tale of errors that has characterised attempts to transform our education system since 1994, we now find ourselves having to answer the question: What then, should the direction of education transformation be going forward?
Any attempt to address the problems bedeviling our education must begin at foundation level. From the onset, we need to teach our children literacy and numeracy. The mastery of cognitive skills at an early age is the foundation for future learning.
To address the quality of teaching and learning in our school system, we need courageous leadership to deal with the problem of school management; to address the culture of ill-discipline on the part of both learners and teachers; to urgently to attend to the need for teacher retraining; as well as the obvious challenge of resources.
Attention must be paid to the development of a culture of reading amongst learners. Successful nations and knowledge-based economies are those that invest in reading.
A paradigm shift on higher education transformation is long overdue. While the transformation of institutional management is important, real transformation must happen in the lecture rooms. We need a fundamental departure from the current obsession with mere replacement of white with black faces in management structures of our universities.
We must ask the following questions: How well qualified and experienced are those who teach our children? How do we develop a critical mass of competent career academics and researchers? More importantly, how do we restore the value of education in our society?
The beginning of a turnaround in our education system will only happen when we begin to tell the truth about the tale of errors that has characterised our attempts to transform education in post-apartheid South Africa. This calls for a departure from the current obsession with the form of education to a substantive transformation of the quality of education.