South Africa’s youngsters are let down by a lousy education system


The government is hostage to the biggest teaching union

Apr 25th 2019Print edition | Special report

WHEN YOUR correspondent arrives at Hlabizulu primary school, near the town of Willowvale in the Eastern Cape, there is the familiar sound of children playing, but it is not break time. The pupils have been left to their own devices. In one classroom they have been padlocked inside. “What can we do?” asks one of the staff. “They’re locked in because they have no teachers.” Just three of the seven teaching staff have turned up for work.

Locking up children may be unusual but a similar lack of learning occurs on a daily basis in South African schools. For even when teachers show up they often do not teach pupils anything. “There is very little education taking place here,” sighs Mkhuseli Ngcube of Public School Partnerships, an NGO trying to change that.

Education both reflects and entrenches the inequalities in South African society. The top 200 high schools in the country produce more distinction marks in maths and science exams than the other 6,476 high schools put together. Meanwhile in 47% of high schools not a single pupil meets a commonly accepted international standard for maths. The equivalent figure in Botswana is just 2%. These schools could be called “cognitive wastelands”, says Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University.

Apartheid still casts a shadow over education. Non-whites were deliberately given poor schooling, lest they get uppity or, worse, skilled. In 1994 per-pupil spending was 1.5 to 5 times higher for white pupils, depending on the location of the school. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, said blacks should be educated enough only to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

The legacy of this racism is starkly apparent in the villages around Willowvale. Most pupils’ parents have left to seek work in nearby cities such as East London. They leave their children with grandparents, most of whom are illiterate.

After 1994 the ANC opted for a compromise on education policy. Formerly white-only schools would have to accept children from all races, but they could still charge fees. In theory they cannot exclude any pupil for being too poor, but in practice, poor children do not live near these schools, and the costs of transport, uniforms, sports and trips make them prohibitively expensive.

As in other areas of South African life the effect of post-apartheid policy has been to replace a system directly based on race with one based on wealth (and thus, still indirectly racially skewed). More than 180 of the top 200 schools took only white pupils under apartheid. Today non-whites make up 60% of the pupils across all fee-charging schools, but they are overwhelmingly from the country’s elites.

Since 1994 there has been some progress. There is no basis to the notion that education is worse than under apartheid, notes Mr Spaull. Piecing together evidence from various test data, he reckons children today are roughly two years ahead of where they would have been before 1994. Yet in recent years progress is “stalling”, he says. South Africa ranks bottom or near-bottom when countries are ranked by their pupils’ scores in comparable international tests. Nearly 80% of children in grade four (9- or 10-year-olds) cannot read and understand sentences in any language; 61% of pupils a year older cannot add or subtract whole numbers.

Small wonder then that, of the 100 pupils who begin a school year, just 50-60 can be expected to take the end-of-school "matriculation" exam, with 40-50 passing, and only six going on to complete university. All of this has a big impact on a labour market that offers a premium for skilled labour. The jobless rate for people with a high-school certificate (28%) is more than quadruple that for university graduates.

The quality of teaching is a major obstacle to better education. Nearly four in five maths teachers cannot do the sums expected of their 12- or 13-year-old pupils. Many of these teachers were themselves educated under apartheid. Nevertheless the lack of accountability for poor performance has been the responsibility of ANC governments. It is all but impossible to fire a teacher in South Africa. Even when school leaders are suspected of sexual harassment of pupils they are more likely to be moved to a different school than prosecuted.

The problems of South African schools are not for a lack of money. Public spending on education is more than 6% of GDP, a higher share than the average in the OECD club of mostly rich countries. Spending is also higher than in other African countries with better results, such as Kenya. The tolerance of failure, as well as the relatively lavish spending on salaries, is largely a result of the power of teaching unions. The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) is one of the largest unions in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the federation that forms part of the “tripartite alliance” with the ANC, along with the South African Communist Party. SADTU’s political influence means it can get away with stunning levels of mediocrity and corruption.

Its shamefulness was outlined in a report for the government in 2016. Written by John Volmink, it documented widespread fraud and corruption in the school system, such as the sale of jobs for cash or cows. It also found that SADTU was in “de facto control” of the education departments in six of the nine provinces in the country, concluding that “it is not improbable to say that schooling throughout South Africa is run by SADTU”.

Those who can afford to extricate their children from this mess are doing so. Low-cost private schools are increasingly popular. Parents are showing similar preferences for the private over the public as they do in other sectors. In 1997 the number of private security guards and policemen was the same. Today there are three times more private guards than police. No one who can afford private health care relies on the public system.

Yet, given the state of the South African economy, there is a limit to the number of people who can afford to go private. The future of the poorest pupils depends on government policy. Mr Ramaphosa has made some promising suggestions, for example saying that he will embrace an intensive evidence-based reading programme championed by Mr Spaull. That would be a great start. But ultimately a better education system requires the president to take on the unions. Only then will teachers spend more time teaching children than looking out for their own interests.

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