Fixing SA’s failing schools requires an entirely new leadership team

Angie Motshekga is not up to the task of managing and turning around the education system.

Though the bar is admittedly low, basic education minister Angie Motshekga has been one of the best performers in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet. In office since 2009, she appears to genuinely care about basic education, seems to be on top of her brief and has not been involved in corruption scandals.

Yet in the Centre for Development & Enterprise’s latest series of reports on the education system we call for her removal from office — along with her director-general and top team. This is an unprecedented call to action from the centre — one we do not make lightly.

The minister did achieve some success in the early years of her tenure, including, most importantly, the 2011 establishment of the National Education Evaluation & Development Unit (Needu), and the introduction in the same year of the annual national assessments, both of which increased accountability levels by raising awareness about the performance of the public schooling system.

However, these attempts at reform have since either been withdrawn or diluted. Needu is not the independent arms-length evaluation body originally envisaged, and after an initial report exposing corruption in rural schools it has been sidelined. The assessments were cancelled in 2015, largely as a result of opposition from the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).

It took until 2021 for the annual national assessments to be replaced with sample-based assessments for grades 3, 6 and 9. But these only test a small number of schools every three or four years, which does not allow the same pupils to be tracked over time, nor does it provide the tools to hold education districts, individual schools, principals or teachers accountable for performance.

Attempts by the department to introduce performance management systems for teachers, stretching back to the 1990s and through this minister’s tenure, have been repeatedly held up in negotiations with unions, particularly Sadtu. The latest version, the Quality Management System, was introduced in 2021 after 12 years of negotiations with unions. It relies on self-evaluation by teachers and ensures that 99.9% of teachers receive performance-related salary increases.

An independent ministerial task team set up by Motshekga found in 2016 that not only was there widespread corruption in securing positions for educators but — most shockingly — that “Sadtu is in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education” in “six and possibly more of the nine provinces”. In 2015 Motshekga expressed concern about what she called Sadtu’s “stranglehold” on basic education.

And yet not a single one of the recommendations of the task team to eradicate corruption and overturn capture of the education system has been implemented. We don’t know the politics of this — was it lack of will, insufficient political capital, or lack of support from the president? But corruption within the system and Sadtu’s capture of education, to the detriment of pupils around the country, remains to this day.

In October 2020 Motshekga signed a performance agreement with Ramaphosa outlining numerous responsibilities, many of which relate to learning outcomes and education performance. Yet on several of these counts the targets have been missed. No new “better accountability system for principals” has been implemented. The minister is supposed to “monitor the implementation of the Integrated Sector Reading Plan” and “partner with the Council of Education Ministers to ensure that provincial reading plans are developed and implemented”. But in 2023, according to the 2030 Reading Panel headed by former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, no national reading plan exists.

The department’s 2020 Action Plan lacks specific proposals to address systemic shortcomings. For example, it does not deal with how teachers could be held accountable for their performance, an essential priority for reform. Even when the correct priorities are identified — for example, enhancing the powers of principals as recommended by the 2012 National Development Plan (NDP) — no credible steps are articulated for how or by when the priority areas will be reformed. In short, the department’s plan tinkers with the system while avoiding the need to fix deep-seated causes of dysfunction.

Leading international education expert Lant Pritchett’s 2019 analysis of World Bank data shows that SA is the single biggest learning underperformer relative to GDP per capita. That means we are the furthest away from where we should be given our level of income. In international benchmark tests on reading (Pirls) and math and science (Timss), SA ranks in the bottom three, despite testing pupils a grade above most other countries.

Adjusting for post-Covid learning losses, education expert Nic Spaull believes 82% of grade 4s cannot read for meaning. Early reading is the basic foundation that determines a child’s educational progress through school, higher education and into the workplace.

Sizwe Nxasana, founder of Future Nation Schools, says: “An education system can only be as good as its teachers.” But SA’s teachers are struggling. Only 41% of grade 6 math teachers have “good proficiency”, compared with 87% in Zimbabwe and 95% in Kenya. And our teachers have the highest absenteeism rate in the region.

SA needs to recognise the depth and true causes of our failing schools. We need leaders with experience in turning around and managing a complex, vast system: 23,000 schools, 320,000 teachers, 13-million pupils. We need the very best people we can find — in SA or South Africans abroad — with these skills and determination.

It is equally important that MECs and heads of provincial education departments are effective. These new leaders need the president’s full support for the tough political decisions that are essential to improve performance. A new leadership team needs to act immediately on systemwide reforms:

Tackle corruption and cadre deployment by implementing corruption-related recommendations from the 2016 ministerial task team report.

• Raise accountability by bringing back universal standardised tests for grades 1 to 9, reinvigorating Needu, guaranteeing its independence, and implementing NDP recommendations to give principals more power over the appointment and management of teachers in their schools.

• Publicly commit to stretch targets to incrementally move off the bottom of every international test we undertake. Ensure every pupil can read for meaning by 2030 through adopting a national reading plan, budget and deadlines.

• Strengthen the teacher corps by increasing university entrance requirements, improving university pre-service teacher training and introducing entry examinations for the profession. Strengthen math and science teaching shortages with foreign skills.

We have little faith that the president will heed our call for fresh leadership in education any time soon, so new momentum for change must be created by mobilising leaders outside the government, especially in business. These different interests need to coalesce around a set of minimum demands for systemwide reform and increase the pressure for fundamental change.

Fixing SA’s schools must become a key area of debate in the 2024 election campaign.

Bernstein heads the Centre for Development & Enterprise. This article is based on ‘The Silent Crisis: Time to fix SA’s schools’ a new series of five reports by the centre.

Article published by the Business Day Live

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