My opening remarks at the OR Tambo Debate and an afterword…


On the 7th of July the Wits School of Governance together with the OR Tambo Foundation and the UNDP hosted the 4th debate in their series. The title was “Implementing the NDP: Achieving Basic Education Goals”, focussing specifically on accountability. I was on the panel, together with Sizwe Nxasana, the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and Siphiwe Mthiyane. Melissa King and Barbara Dale-Jones wrote an overview of the event for the M&G and you can read that here. I include my opening remarks and one or two comments below.

“Let me start by saying that I have immense admiration and respect for Minister Motshekga. I don’t think there is a single person in this room that is so naïve as to think that your job is easy or uncomplicated. Or that the solutions are straight-forward. In the face of an ongoing crisis in education you have worked systematically and consistently to improve the system by getting the basics in place. And indeed there have been some improvements and signs of success that we should acknowledge and to some extent also celebrate.

Let me highlight the 4 most impressive achievements as I see them.

  • Firstly, we now have a solid well thought-out curriculum that has widespread buy-in from all stakeholders- CAPS. We should not change the curriculum.
  • Secondly, everyday 9 million children receive at least one free school meal and this is paid for the by the State.
  • Thirdly, each child from grades 1 to 9 receives 4 high-quality workbooks per year – 2 for maths and 2 for language. These structure the curriculum by week and provide lessons for teachers to teach.
  • Lastly, we now have national tests – the ANAs – that test children in grades 1-9 in mathematics and languages. With the exception of the census this is the largest single data collection exercise undertaken by government of South Africa. It is colossal

In light of these achievements it is prudent to ask why it is that myself and others continually use the word “crisis” or more accurately an “an on-going crisis” when we refer to our education system. It is not because we are ignorant of these achievements or that we do not appreciate their scale and scope, we do. Rather we use this term because it is the only one that reflects the gravity and severity of the picture we find when we look at the nationally representative datasets in education. Let me give you some examples:

  • At the end of Grade 4 more than half of our students cannot read for meaning and interpretation and a third are completely illiterate in any language.
  • 61% of our grade 9 students did not know that three fifths was equal to 0.6.
  • 76% were not minimally competent in maths or science in grade 9 – that do not know about whole numbers or basic graphs. They are 3-4 years behind the curriculum.
  • Or if we look at the matric pass rate – that much touted, publically celebrated statistic that is also deeply flawed as a barometer of the system, last year that figure was a respectable 76%. But if we look at 100 students that started school in 2003, only 49 actually made it to matric in 2014, only 37 passed and only 14 qualified to go to university. So the ‘real’ matric pass rate is 37% not 76%.
  • And while 14% qualify to go to university, only 10% will actually go to university and only 5% will get a degree. So of 100 kids that start school, only 5 will get a degree. 60 will get absolutely nothing – not a matric pass, not a certificate, not a degree. Nothing!
  • In one study comparing the North West and Botswana, at the end of the year our maths teachers had taught only 40% of the maths lessons they were scheduled to teach, compared to 60% in Botswana.
  • According to an education report by OECD released this year SA ranked 75/76

Still in 2015 – 20 years after democracy the reality is that most Black children in South Africa continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. Where 10 million people live on less than R10 a day. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self-worth and agency. In short, poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their motivation or ability. Low quality education becomes a poverty trap that is virtually inescapable. This is the antithesis of social mobility. It is unacceptable. It is morally despicable. It is also unsustainable.

So how does all of this relate to accountability and this debate? I would argue that almost all of these problems relate to 2 issues: a lack of accountability, a lack of capacity. Too many people cannot do their jobs and have not received meaningful support and training. For too many people – teachers and bureaucrats alike – there are no consequences for non-performance.

Accountability is not, (or should not be) a vague concept. Accountability is another word for consequences. When there are no consequences for non-performance there is no accountability. It isn’t complicated. Currently there are no consequences for non-performance. Not for teachers, not for principals, not for district officials, not for union leaders, not for bureaucrats, not for DDGs. No one. I must add a caveat that I do not believe you can hold people – especially teachers – accountable for things they cannot do. Capacity precedes accountability. This is why we have to offer our teachers meaningful learning opportunities (which we absolutely have not done) before we can hold them accountable for performance. Absenteeism, misconduct etc. by all means, but if a teacher in rural Limpopo cannot do fractions because she was given inadequate training under apartheid and token in-service teacher training post-apartheid, we cannot speak about accountability for her until she has been given a meaningful learning opportunity. Then we can talk about accountability and board exams and all that but only then.

I believe that the major cause of both of these problems is (1) the politicisation of the civil service and the practice of cadre deployment among bureaucrats and teachers, (2) the networks of patronage that permeate our system, (3) The unhealthy relationship between parts of SADTU and the Department of Basic Education – nationally and provincially, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

This all works to the detriment of quality education for the poor. Minister I honestly believe you have done a lot to improve our education system and you are the best education Minister we have had so far, but two areas where you have not succeeded are ending cadre deployment and developing a comprehensive plan for meaningful teacher development.”

[End of opening remarks]

In what was meant to be ‘closing remarks’ for the debate, the Deputy Minister of Education Mr Enver Surty, attempted to discredit most of what I was saying by arguing, at length, that all of this data I was using was “outdated” and on the contrary that “We have a good story to tell.” For those of us who are specialists in using education data, who are professional researchers adept at  using cross-national education data, who work with it daily and present on it at local and international conferences, this rebuke came as somewhat of a surprise. To set the record straight it is worth emphasising four points: (1) education systems do not change rapidly in the space of 2 or 3 years, see chapter 4 of this paper (2) The TIMSS and PIRLS studies were done in 2011 but the report and data were only ready and released in 2013, 2 years ago. (3) The ANAs are not substitutes for these rigorous inter-temporal comparisons – see here, here, and here. (4) Apart from a 1.5 grade-level improvement in the TIMSS 2002–>2011 maths and science improvement there is no other evidence that the educational outcomes in South Africa have improved. I do not have any reason to distrust the TIMSS improvement, but it’s important to remember just how low the post-improvement level of performance really is and that starting from an exceptionally low base this is not that unexpected at all. I am more than happy to expound any of these points in detail and at length if they are still unclear. This is what I do.

Although it was unfortunate not to have a right-of-reply after the Deputy Minister’s misinformed ad-hominem attacks, I am not particularly concerned because the data and consequent research base speaks for itself. It is clear, unambiguous and well documented. I maintain that we have an ongoing crisis in education and that poor children continue to be condemned to hereditary poverty as a direct result of the low quality education they receive at school. Poor quality education was and is a poverty trap. This should be our biggest source of national shame.

5 responses to “My opening remarks at the OR Tambo Debate and an afterword…

  1. Thank you for speaking the truth in a very difficult context. Hopefully they also listened….. Kairos SA salutes you!

  2. Maurita Weissenberg

    Nic, anyone who thinks there is not an ongoing crisis in education just does themselves a huge injustice.

  3. Hi Nic

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said in your opening remarks.

    I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the rise of low-fee private schooling in South Africa, and in particular the model adopted by Spark Schools, which seems by all accounts to be working successfully so far? (If you’ve already posted something on this and I missed it, I apologize). I live in Cape Town and would be so keen to see more of these schools here, and indeed across the country. Do you think this is a practical / sustainable model for South Africa?

    Kind regards,

    Lynn Chambers Rondebosch, Cape Town

  4. Fantastic blog entry!

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