This letter was in response to an opinion piece by The Department of Basic Education

Reform is possible but it requires leaders to acknowledge deep problems in system without getting defensive.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) is an independent policy research and advocacy organisation. We objectively diagnose policy challenges in SA and, where they occur, recommend solutions based on evidence, input from experts and global best practice.

CDE welcomes the opportunity to engage with the Department of Basic Education on its response to our new series of five reports, The Silent Crisis, on the state of schooling in the country. Each of the DBE’s key claims are dealt with below.

The alarming state of our schools

DBE: “The pervasive tone throughout the CDE reports is one of outrage and alarm, which runs a (foreseeable) risk that many readers would assume that the South African school system must be in a condition of deterioration. The facts, in contrast, clearly point to improvements against all relevant metrics of education system performance.”

A glance at the overall trends in NSC results do, on the surface, suggest steady and impressive learning improvements over the past 28 years. In 1994, the Grade 12 pass rate was 58 percent; this rose to 81 percent in 2019, before dropping slightly to 80 percent in 2022, in spite of the hugely negative impact of Covid-19.

However, a deeper look at all relevant metrics paints a different picture:

-Dropout rates

Grade 12 pass rates only record the results of those who actually took the exams. There are many who either drop out before Grade 12 or don’t take the exam and repeat the year, often multiple times. Only 55 percent of young people aged 23 to 27 successfully completed 12 years of schooling, and over 55 percent of learners in Grades 10 to 12 are overage. As the NDP pointed out in its report, and according to the latest UNESCO figures (USA (95%), UK (84%) and Japan (96%) all have much higher rates of secondary school completion.

Falling standards and worrisome promotion practices

Professor Servaas van der Berg and Professor Nic Spaull and Gabrielle Wills have raised questions about the lenient promotion policies introduced by Umalusi (the council that ratifies the annual National Senior Certificate (NSC) results) and worry that falling standards erode public confidence in the matric results. We share these concerns.

Foundation phase results

2019: 62% of Grade 5 learners do not have “basic mathematical knowledge”.

2021: after a year of school more than 50% of Grade 1 learners don’t know all the letters in the alphabet.

2023: According to Professor Nic Spaull, at least 82 percent (and perhaps as much as 85 percent) of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning.

Performance in the most recent global benchmark tests (for which data are available):

In the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), South Africa had the lowest average reading literacy score out of 50 participating countries.

In the 2019 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), South Africa’s Grade 9 learners (on a maths test designed for Grade 8s) placed us dead last out of 39 participating countries.

As education experts Professor Nic Spaull and DBE’s own research advisor Dr Stephen Taylor have written, our education outcomes may have already hit a “low ceiling” before Covid-19 disruptions caused significant learning losses (actually putting the system into decline). These experts argue that systemwide reforms are required for any significant gains to be realised. We agree.

If the tone of CDE’s reports is “one of outrage and alarm”, it is because the state of our education system is alarming, and more people should be outraged by this.


DBE: “The sector was not invited to respond or at least to provide information on work being done to address the challenges raised in the reports. This means the reports are one-sided and overtaken, in some parts, by work done up to now.”

CDE has studied all the DBE’s policy papers, discussion documents and other relevant material. If any of CDE’s research has been “overtaken” by new DBE work, we invite them to share the findings thereof with the public, showing precisely how the evidence we have gathered is no longer applicable. We have consulted widely with the leading experts in the education sector and invited senior DBE members to a workshop in the early phases of our research. They were unfortunately unable to attend.

Instead of defaulting to process and protocol, the country needs the DBE to engage with the substance of our work.

A silent crisis

DBE: “CDE reports draw in large part on the data, research and information made available and published by the DBE and then, mischievously, describes the situation as a ‘silent crisis’.”

We characterise basic education in South Africa as a silent crisis because:

The government is not communicating the true extent of the basic education crisis. It is not leading the national debate on how to improve learner outcomes as rapidly as possible. The Minister talks of a ‘system on the rise’ and the President of a ‘silent revolution’ when the facts demonstrate that the opposite is true.

Other sectors of society are not talking about this national crisis, focusing instead on poor schooling infrastructure, violence at schools, and other issues – all of which are important, but do not get to the heart of the DBE’s central mandate: improving the quality of teaching in our schools.

It is time for everyone to raise their voices at the poor state of our education, for the sake of South Africa’s children. And it is way past time that we focused on improving our scores on international benchmark tests through systemwide and fundamental reform. We make no apology for issuing this call to action.

The need for fresh leadership in education

DBE: “…any underlying value in the CDE’s analysis and recommendations on education policy are unfortunately undermined by the strong politically charged stance taken. The CDE contend that we have a “weak president”, and call for the removal of the Minister, the DG and the leadership team within the department.”

Though the bar is admittedly low, Minister Motshekga has been one of the best performing cabinet ministers. 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.

As we note in the report, she achieved some success in the early years of her tenure. This includes the establishment of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) 2011, the introduction of the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) also in 2011, greater textbook provision, and positive curricular changes. Minister Motshekga should also be credited for appointing an independent Ministerial Task Team (2014) to look into allegations of corruption and “jobs for cash” in schools.

However, these attempts at reform have either been withdrawn or diluted with the Minister and department backing down as a result of union pressure. NEEDU is not the independent arms-length evaluation body originally envisaged, and after an initial report exposing corruption in rural schools it has been side-lined. The ANA’s were cancelled in 2015, largely as a result of opposition from SADTU. Attempts by the department to introduce performance management systems for teachers, have been repeatedly held up in negotiations with unions, particularly SADTU. The current version relies on self-evaluation by teachers and ensures that 99.9% of teachers receive performance-related salary increases. And, not one of the Ministerial Task Team’s 2016 recommendations to deal with corruption by officials or SADTU’s inappropriate involvement in the DBE to the most senior levels and including recruitment processes have been implemented.

In short, the track record of the Minister of Basic Education over the past 5-6 years indicates that she is not going to push through significant systemwide reforms. It is time for her (and her top team) to make way for leaders who will.

State capture in education

DBE: “In another political move, the CDE reports weave a narrative of “state capture” onto our education system, going back to the Ministerial Task Team report of 2016 dealing with corruption relating to school-based appointment processes. The appropriation of the language of “state capture” into the education space is unfortunate and inappropriate, given that “state capture” has a particular reference to a serious problem our country has experienced, and applying it inappropriately empties it of its value. The Ministerial Task Team report of 2016 dealt mainly with school-level instances of corruption in the form of bribery for posts, so the language of state capture is not appropriate.”

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has been allowed to apply its policy of cadre deployment and infiltrate the DBE and most of the provincial education departments. This is not CDE’s assertion, it is the conclusion of the Basic Education Minister’s own Task Team appointed to investigate the so-called ‘Jobs for Cash’ scandal into the illegal payment for teaching posts. The Task Team concluded with this stunning statement: “SADTU is in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education” in “six and possibly more of the nine provinces”.

In the words of Professor Thulani Zengele: “There are scores of senior positions within the DBE, including district and school management positions, that have been filled by key SADTU leaders.” At the time of the release of the Task Team report, all the deputy directors general of the DBE were SADTU members, frequently attending union meetings.

SADTU’s infiltration of the education bureaucracy fits the Zondo Commission’s definition of state capture as a “network of relationships, both inside and outside government, whose objective is to ensure the exercise of undue influence over decision-making in government and organs of the state, for private and unlawful gain.”

Concluding remarks

CDE is committed to, in the DBE’s words, “contributing to a shared agenda for improving education in the future”. Doing so requires us to be fiercely independent, and to put forward our diagnosis and recommendations without fear or favour.

Our analysis indicates that fundamental reform, although difficult, is possible. However, it requires leaders in education to acknowledge the deep problems in the system (without getting defensive), and to commit themselves to systemwide reform.

Success also requires a committed and determined president to help change the narrative in the country around education and what needs to be done. This coupled with a new energetic reform team in the DBE gives the country a chance of fundamental reform. Without these actions, we will never move up international benchmark tables and we will condemn another generation of young South Africans to an appalling education.

This article published by the Politics Web is based on a new CDE report titled: “THE SILENT CRISIS: Time to fix South Africa’s Schools.”