Public school education in South Africa: Can we fix it?

by Paul Colditz: Chief Executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS). Paul practised law as an attorney for 30 years, and served on public school governing bodies for 23 years.

The document Diagnostic Overview,1 which resulted from the initial deliberations of Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission (NPC), states the obvious: “The quality of education for poor black South Africans is substandard.” It is not clear, though, why the Commission singles out “poor black South Africans”. The simple truth is that the quality of education for most South African learners is substandard, and that, if left unabated, ‘most’ will soon become ‘all’.

The diagnostic document is also surprisingly frank in its identification of the roots of this problem. However, as many education specialists and commentators have been pointing out these very issues over many years, the Commission’s findings come as no surprise.

Encouraging as it may be that the system’s shortcomings have now been formally acknowledged by a government body specifically established “to help define the South Africa we seek to achieve”, the NPC is still to shed light on whether – and how – this problem can be fixed.

I believe the first part of the three-pronged solution can be found in the following two statements made in the McKinsey report How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top, which was published in September 2007:2

  1. “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” AND
  2. “The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.”

The second and third parts respectively are leadership and parents’ role in their children’s education.

Research on the performance of South African learners over the past decade has revealed that our learners perform appallingly in literacy, numeracy, language and mathematics. In fact, the results of the Annual National Assessments conducted at the beginning of this year suggested that the situation is in fact worse than we had thought.

Increased funding and more resources have not had the desired effect. That alone will clearly not solve the problem. When children struggle to read, write, count and calculate, it first and foremost speaks volumes about their instruction.

The teachers

It is therefore primarily our teachers who can make the difference. Yes, many of our teachers indeed received poor training themselves, but, as the NPC overview shows, the qualifications of, and opportunities for, teachers have significantly improved over the past two decades. And yes, some of our teachers are world-class, but the challenge to turn our country’s education problems around is not theirs alone. The time has come for all teachers to take responsibility.

Of course, ill-conceived experiments with curriculum changes and the disastrous implementation of outcomes-based education certainly caused confusion and uncertainty among our teachers, and served as significant demotivators in their performance. However, the recent return to the fundamentals of cognitive development appears to be a move in the right direction. It will hopefully lead to a more stable environment, in which teachers know and understand what is expected of them. If that can be achieved, a significant obstacle in the way of proper school instruction will have been removed.

All South Africans need to understand that teachers are professionals and must be treated as such. Most importantly, teachers themselves must believe that they are professionals, and must realise that their conduct needs to reflect this. Professionals take responsibility for their own development, their own performance and their own actions. Professionals do not constantly blame others for their own dismal performance. They are not mere employees or workers; they do not require constant supervision; they do not intimidate, victimise or assault others and destroy property as demonstrated in industrial action in recent years. Professionals welcome every bit of assistance. And if such assistance is not forthcoming, they themselves create opportunities for their own development and the development of the environment in which they operate. Professionals need not be told that they must be in class, on time, teaching. Professionals are productive individuals, who do not hesitate to shoulder the responsibility of educating our country’s future leaders. Ultimately, professionals know that the only way for them to advance is to help others to advance also.

The system cannot fire each and every underperforming teacher. Every South African must accept responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves. If we, as a country and individual citizens, are able to change the mindset of our approximately 400 000 teachers, successful education reform in South Africa can be achieved in a relatively short time. If not, in the words of the NPC, “a business-as-usual approach will result in South Africa failing to meet a great many of its objectives”. In short, our nation shall be doomed.

The leaders

Achieving this mind shift will require leadership. Once again, the focal point of this leadership will have to be located in the profession itself. Teachers’ union leaders and teachers themselves must accept that they are and must remain servant-leaders. Although ministers, officials and Government in general have a leadership role to play, we must not wait for them to take the lead. Leaders understand and shoulder their responsibilities. Leaders notice opportunities in every challenge, and are prepared to tackle those challenges head-on.

The parents

The third pillar required to support a rebuilt education system is parent involvement. Parents must take responsibility for their children’s education. In this regard, many parents face huge challenges, including poverty, their own illiteracy, their inability to provide proper nutrition for their children, lack of resources such as books, and even the absence of the very basic amenities of life. However, a proper education remains the only way to break the cycle of underdevelopment and poverty in which many South Africans are still caught. Once parents start insisting on the best education for their children, as vehemently as they would insist on other basic rights such as housing and clean water, we will be well on our way to fixing education in our country.


  1. http://www.npconline.co.za/MediaLib/Downloads/Home/Tabs/Diagnostic/Diagnostic%20Overview.pdf
  2. http://www.mckinsey.com/App_Media/Reports/SSO/Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf

Useful resources:
FEDSAS is the national representative organisation for governing bodies, which informs, organises, mobilises and develops its members to achieve and uphold the highest recognised international educational standards.
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