Q&A with Mary Metcalfe


The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. We start the series with Professor Mary Metcalfe…  

1)   Why did you decide to go into education?

“Originally it was the only way that I could get funding to study – a teaching bursary.  Although the broad field of education was not inconsistent with my fundamental interest in social service, I have stayed in education for 40 years  – I started teaching unqualified.

2)   What does your average week look like during the semester?

 I am a visiting adjunct professor at Wits PDM, but I only go there when I see postgraduate students for supervision.  I currently spend all of my time on PILO (the Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes), and on my work as Chair of the Education Advisory Board of the Open Society Foundations.  The latter keeps me traveling often during the year.  PILO keeps me busy in the Northern Cape and in KZN.   This means many early morning flights and late evening returns.  I tend to have very long working days and working weekends.  I usually work in the evening listening to music, and try to stop working an hour or so before I sleep – or my mind is still racing and I can’t sleep!

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

Most recently, the person who changed my thinking a great deal has been Richard Elmore.  I couldn’t accept his notions of opening the teaching space at first glance – my professional education was deeply rooted in the independent professional judgement of the educator.  It took some thinking to realize that this is actually a deeper professionalism.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field?

Linda Darling-Hammond, Ben Levin, and Helen Timperley 

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

The social context of secondary schooling and how this impacts on learning and retention – dropout, self-esteem, and the consequences of this for families.

6) If you could highlight one of the pieces of advice you regularly give your students, what would it be?  

I’m not sure that I have said anything stupendous.  I am very keen for students to construct arguments well and to be able to use the literature to do so without losing their own voice.

7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

  1. To understand the constitutional framework for the roles and responsibilities of the national and provincial departments of education.  Norms and Standards are a critical instrument and have not been adequately used as an instrument for accountability, planning, and to create justifications for the financing to achieve the careful plans developed at provincial level. It is the provincial plans that matter, and it would be great if the national department used the norms and standards component of the South African Schools Act to assess these plans. Norms and Standards can be set for a variety of key elements of quality – and the provinces should report as envisaged in the Act.  Where there are careful plans with capacity, the funds might follow.
  2. I’d also highlight the internal efficiency of the system.   We are running short of funding – the personnel share is growing which has dire consequences for quality – and there is too much wastage in the system. Poor quality results in repetition, failure and drop out.  We need to move on the Grade 10 exam so that young people who leave before NSC have a credential, and to take the pressure off of the NSC which must assess so much.  
  3. A sense of hope amongst teachers that they will be supported – that they will be helped with the problems that they face. 

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

I have stayed in education because I believe that it is the key mechanism to change lives, and build development. Nothing can do this better.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

A great fan.  I think about this a lot and try to keep up to date.  In PILO we are using technology in some interesting ways – but it is “over-sold and underused” as Cuban has said.  Capacity must be there for the entire value chain, and there must be thorough M and E. We must insist on open education resources wherever possible, and work towards technology being an instrument of achieving equality.”


Some of the other academics on my “to-interview” list include Brahm Fleisch, Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Ursula Hoadley and Stephen Taylor. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

4 responses to “Q&A with Mary Metcalfe

  1. First time got here and it did interest me to get more

  2. Need to interview African educationists as this will bring an important different angle. Plse do not interview middle class academics only as there are many interesting w/c Africans to interview and show up as role models
    Francine de Clercq

  3. Hi Francine, that’s an excellent suggestion and a serious oversight on my part, apologies. Can you suggest some names and I’ll contact them? Nic

  4. Hi Nic
    The interview was good and useful to me in a number of ways. The questions and answers provided where spot on. Perhaps an additional question could be ‘what needs to change in general’ as I think the changes required go beyond the education minister. Another interesting area might be ‘what further work needs to be done’.


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