South Africa: Why our schools don ’t work...

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jan 13 16:15:28 UTC 2008

Why our schools don't work...
 Published:Jan 13, 2008

 We should aim for schools small enough for the principal to know the
name of every child

Who do teachers turn to when faced with social problems — often
manifesting in discipline problems?

And 10 tips on how to fix them
1. We have underestimated the time needed for change and we have not
invested enough energy in building a consensus that can sustain

Our national expectations have emphasised rapid deliverables. But the
pace and volume of change have not allowed the system to absorb
change, and we have failed to involve all necessary parties
sufficiently in the process. Many communities feel alienated from the
changes in education and have lost their voice. Relationships between
teachers and the state are dominated by labour relations issues, and
seldom is there an inclusive national discourse that moves from
"blaming" to focus on what support teachers need and how to achieve
quality improvement.

What needs to be done?
We need to maintain robust relationships to improve the conditions of
service of teachers — but we also need vigorous and inclusive debates
about educational issues. Where is the National Education and Training
Council, envisaged in the National Education Policy Act of 1996? It
has never been established. Education debate has been marginalised.

How long will this take?
It is possible to get the forum established (and replicated at
provincial and local levels) and a national debate on track this year.

2. We have not sufficiently differentiated between the needs of
different teachers:

The most significant factor affecting learner performance is teacher
quality, and the effect is greatest for the poor. The research is
unequivocal: the conceptual knowledge of our teachers is low; teachers
have a poor grasp of the subjects they teach; there is a high level of
teacher error in the content and concepts presented in lessons; and
teachers have low expectations of learners, who then achieve to these
low expectations. Whether curriculum changes that have been introduced
are "good" or "bad" is less important than building the professional
confidence of teachers, and excellence in teaching.

How do we improve quality?
The most important investment we can make is to provide teachers with
academically rigorous, credible and useful learning opportunities that
will build their confidence and understanding in the subject matter
they teach. In pursuing these opportunities, they must have sufficient
time to read and think and write, and to reflect on their practice.

How long will this take?
Co-ordinating the academic and financial planning cycles of higher
education institutions (which are likely to be the major providers,
together with some NGOs) and provincial education departments (who are
likely to be the funders), and capacity building including course and
materials development, could result in programmes being ready by 2010.
Until this happens we might see sporadic provincial efforts, hopefully
benefiting some, and more importantly the development and
consolidation of new teacher-led systems of continuing professional
development that will take firm root 10 years into the future.

3. We have not focused sufficiently on the core of literacy and numeracy:

Reversing the appalling performance of our children in the elementary
literacy and numeracy skills has to be a national priority, and must
be integral to teacher development programmes, and the provision and
use of resources.

How long will this take?
We must help teachers rethink their practice. This has to be dependent
on developing the options above and it will take five years (2013) or
more (if budgets are available and capacity exists to support
teachers) before we reach enough teachers to start to make a
difference (and another 10 years — 2023 — or so for this to filter
through to the school leavers). To prepare and distribute materials
could be done much more quickly with substantial impact — possibly in
two years if the funding exists in provincial budgets for 2009/10 and
intensive planning happens this year. Material that provides teachers
with comprehensive guidelines for lessons could have a massive
positive impact — but it will take three years to develop and get into

4. We have made serious errors in relation to languages of learning
and teaching:

The quest for access to the socio-economic power that appears to
accompany fluency in English is causing communities to make terrible
decisions. Where else in the world would there be a serious discussion
about whether we should teach first-year learners (and teach them to
read in particular) in a language they cannot understand? In
multilingual communities the challenge of linguistic and cultural
separation remains, but urgent action must be taken to promote
instruction in languages that best support learning.

How long will this take?
The minister has this on her radar, as have most provincial education
departments — but planning issues are as yet not well developed. We
need more speakers of African languages training to be foundation
phase teachers. We need high quality resource materials — particularly
reading materials — in all languages to be developed. We need teachers
to be trained in the challenges of literacy and numeracy instruction
in multi- lingual classrooms. We need books written in all languages.
We need teachers to become more confident in teaching both "first" and
"second" languages — and we need more teachers to be more fluent in
more languages. To do all of this? Maybe six years (2014) to be on our
feet if we plan well, but longer to be running.

5. We have not invested sufficient resources rapidly enough to address
material deficiencies:

This is an area we can get right within a few years. We now have a
detailed national database of school needs, and the national Treasury
has committed R950-million towards eradicating the backlog in building
and servicing schools. Most provinces have developed the systems
needed to build and renovate schools so that we should be able to aim
for the provision of at least basic minimum learning and teaching
resources: libraries; toilets; staff rooms; offices; sickrooms;
storerooms; netball courts; laboratories; fencing; unbroken windows;
enough schools in densely populated parts of the country so that they
are small enough for the principal to know the name of every child.
All of this should be possible.

How long will this take?
The construction industry has the capacity and this project has job-
creation and skill-development potential. If the planning expertise
does not exist in provincial departments this could be brought in. If
spending the R950-million is effectively managed, we could see a
difference by 2012.

6. We have not differentiated sufficiently between the needs of
different schools and their states of readiness to implement change:

Our schools are not equal in their internal ability to respond to
policy changes. The more complex the policy change, the more
disruptive this has been to weak schools. The sad lesson of the past
13 years is that the schools most in need of improvement have been the
least able to respond to new policy requirements.

What needs to be done?

We need to support some schools more than others. Failing schools must
be engaged and given additional material and support — not demands for
compliance but the establishment of compacts between the staff, the
community and the education department where firm commitments are made
to behaviour change in exchange for support.

How long will this take?
As long as it will take the officials supporting schools to establish
the credible leadership needed to guide this process, and for fair
processes that are open to public scrutiny to be established to
allocate additional human or material resources.

7. We have not sufficiently developed leadership in teaching and
learning at school and district level:

This is the most critical area. It is at school level that the
detailed planning and monitoring must take place — and this has been
the weakest link. The routine planning of how the selected content is
to be covered during the course of the year; the use of school time
and resources through the most appropriate timetable; use of learning
support material; structuring of assessment; reviewing of learner
performance; provision of differentiated learning for learners of
different abilities; agreement about performance benchmarks; and
managing access to textbooks and readers. All of these require
diligent and firm collegial support from heads of departments and
school principals. In far too many schools there is no leadership and
no accountability. Officials are themselves not confident in these
areas or are denied access to school records that should document
these activities. "School management" has not focused enough on the
leadership of teaching and learning. Roles and responsibilities are
not clear, and where leadership is not credible, it is ineffective. In
some schools, every decision is contested and inordinate energy is
invested in negotiating management issues. This may be because
leadership is weak and decisions questionable, but the less time spent
on routine administration, the more time can be devoted to teaching.

How long will this take?
The leadership of teacher, principal and subject-specific
organisations will be critical. This must be separated from the vexed
question of appraisal for remuneration purposes. All of the time
frames could be "fast-tracked" if there was school- and
circuit/district-led leadership of the processes of teaching and
learning where school performance data was a subject of discussion
about ways to improve, and if schools were given access to performance
information gathered and held at provincial and national level that
would help them make decisions. Building on the many good examples
that already exist, and on the basis of a national consensus, we could
begin developing these ideas in 2008 and start making progress next
year — at different rates across our different school contexts.

8. We have neglected the social and support mechanisms:

While teachers have clear pastoral responsibilities, they cannot in
addition play the roles of social workers and psychologists. These are
critical support functions in schools serving communities ravaged by
poverty and HIV. Who do teachers turn to when faced with social
problems — often manifesting in discipline problems? Schools no longer
have librarians, and sports and recreational activities are moribund
at most schools. We should select schools initially on two criteria:
those serving the poorest communities and which are "large" — possibly
with more than 650 learners — and provide them with if not direct,
then immediate, access to counsellors/social workers; media and
literacy specialists; and recreation officers. This could be provided
to clusters of schools and should be linked to community support

How long will this take?
The budget provision is not substantial — and the human resource base
has been eroded and will take years to rebuild. The training of school
psychologists, social workers, librarians/media and literacy experts
and sports facilitators has been reduced to a trickle because there
are no employment opportunities. If we can resuscitate training
programmes, we might be able to get trained personnel into schools by
2013 or 2014.

9. We have ruptured the community base of education in urban areas:

The challenges facing schools in different demographic contexts vary
greatly. In rural areas, schools might be more central to community
life but suffer from isolation and the difficulties of accessing
resources. In urban areas, we have seen mass migrations of children
from where they live to what is perceived to be a "better" education
in towns and suburbs. This freedom of choice and the consequent
diversity of schools in less-poor areas is to be celebrated — but it
has depleted poor communities of the resources that might make a
difference to quality and to hope. Soweto is a case in point. The
economic growth that is driving up house prices is not matched in
education. Schools have emptied, many are closed, and young learners
flood out of Soweto at dawn. The financial cost of the fees and
transport (indicatively, R12 000 per learner a year would total
R12-million for each unit of 1000 learners), and the potential
value-add of parents committed to improving the education
opportunities of their children if invested into schools in the
township could have a huge impact. Despite Bantu Education, Sowetans
were proud of the standards achieved in many schools and this needs to
be reasserted. One way of doing this would be to enter into community
partnerships where "spare" capacity in township schools could be used
for community-driven quality innovations.

How long will this take?
Innovative pilot projects could be immediate. A project that pulls a
community into discussion about what sort of public school they would
like in their area, and what private resources could be diverted into
this public project could show results by 2009 – but these would have
to be inclusive, community schools that accept that the capacity to
contribute will differ between families.

10. Our planning has been poor:

The suggestions above, and the rough indications of time frames
illustrate that "quick-fix" solutions are bound to fail because of the
complexity of the issues. It is not surprising that so much has gone
wrong, and expressions of outrage and finger- pointing are not
helpful. Given the magnitude of the progress we have made, and where
we have come from, failures were, to some extent, inevitable.
Consensus must be built regarding the factors that underlie our
quality differentials and deficiencies; we must agree on what might be
the key steps to address these; and we must plan carefully in a
co-ordinated way and with responsibilities accepted by all

Quality in education is like running a marathon — not a sprint. We
must set achievable and realistic goals at every level. The annual
expectation of an "improvement in matric" is a dangerous distraction.

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