Since South Africa’s shift from apartheid to democracy in 1994 there have been many achievements in the education sector. These include establishing a single education system that caters to all children, improved access, and support for the poor through no-fee schools.
But plenty of work still remains: the quality of education is not equal across the system, and many students still drop out before obtaining a school-leaving qualification.
South Africa holds national and provincial elections on May 8. In anticipation of this important ballot, we have assessed what each of South Africa’s three biggest political parties say about education in their manifesto.
We focused specifically on what the governing African National Congress (ANC) and the two main oppositions parties – the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – offered by way of novel solutions to the country’s education issues.
Getting basic education right
All manifestos recognise the importance of a quality basic education and improved progression rates, starting with early childhood development and education. The first 1000 days of a child’s life focus largely on health interventions and we recommend that in future the parties also focus on the first 1000 days of schooling (pre-school, grades R, 1, 2 and 3) to build a solid knowledge foundation.
Predictably, all parties recognise the importance of qualified teachers with relevant subject matter knowledge. The DA’s promise to introduce specialist teacher training colleges for primary school educators resonates with the views of many – a debate that should be re-opened.
A competent teacher can function optimally in schools with good infrastructure and facilities (buildings, sanitation, water, electricity, water-flush toilets), libraries and laboratories, and a secure environment that is free of violence. All political parties are committed to these inputs.
But did we find anything novel?
One of the most striking new ideas is the EFF’s promise to increase the subject pass mark from 30% to 50%. The Department of Basic Education’s current pass requirement is 50% for home languages, 40% for most subjects and 30% for two subjects in the senior phase (grade seven to nine), and three subjects in the last phase (grade 10 to 12).
This low pass mark is often derided by South Africans. We concur that the pass mark for numeracy in the foundation phase should be increased from 40% to 50%, allowing children who demonstrate knowledge of basic concepts to progress. This higher pass mark would signal raised expectations across the system. So the EFF’s proposal could be a game changer.
The EFF manifesto also highlights the importance of all learners taking mathematics (presently learners take either mathematics or mathematical literacy). The apartheid government deliberately taught mathematics badly to black South Africans, arguing that it wasn’t a necessary subject for people who were only valued as labourers.
Mathematics, when it is taught well, helps children to develop conceptual and analytical thinking which can set them up for life. The jobs in South Africa that are most in demand and that offer the better salaries are those with mathematics and science foundations. The EFF would do well to keep pushing its message about the value of mathematics in its debates and policies.
The EFF also pledges a remedial teacher for each school. This would be an important way to support pupils who are struggling academically. There is a high rate of grade repetition in South Africa, but this often happens without proper support. Our research shows that those who repeat grades tend to perform worse than their peers who are the correct age for their grade.
It begins at home
Educational inequalities begin in the home and continue to schools. To achieve higher quality education, the country needs more social protection for poorer schools, like smaller class sizes and more teachers in the foundation phase.
All manifestos include social protection polices like the school nutrition and scholar transport schemes, especially for learners from low income households.
For its part, the EFF makes quite a dramatic proposal – to criminalise parents who don’t enrol their children in school. This is probably not strictly necessary, considering that enrolment rates for children aged up to 16 are high. The real problem is daily absenteeism, of both pupils and teachers. Student absenteeism is estimated at between 5% and 15% and teacher absenteeism is currently around 10%
Here, none of the parties offer new ideas.
Preparing for the future
All manifestos respond to the digital revolution and its impact on education. They propose connectivity, computer labs and tablets.
But we would issue a word of caution. While education must respond to technological changes, we need to be cautious and not expect information and communication technologies to be the silver bullet to solve the educational challenges.
As an unequal country South Africa must respond to dual challenges: the skills needed to function in the digital environment (critical thinking, creatively, collaboration and communication) as well as those needed to develop basic reading, arithmetic, writing and reasoning.
From promises to implementation
The South African government is often applauded for its progressive policies – but implementation is a problem. The same is potentially true of the manifestos of the other two parties. They offer a few innovative ideas, but are almost entirely silent about how these ideas might be put in place.