Insider Accounts on South African Education

IMG_1696When it comes to education, South Africa is a hard nut to crack.  Inequalities in the system are enormous. Socio-economic status remains the most important determinant of educational outcomes in South Africa.  Educational quality in historically black schools – constituting 80% of enrolment – has not improved since political transition, despite large resource transfers to such schools.  A recent study found that when comparing 27 factors affecting school performance in dysfunctional and functional schools, only 5 were overlapping between the two groups, confirming the notion of two education systems within one country.

This also corresponds with an urban-rural divide.  Most ‘well-performing’ schools are located in towns. Long ago, these used to be “whites only” schools. Most underperforming schools are located in townships and rural areas. These schools have to deal with many issues. The division between the town and township schools is one of the legacies of Apartheid.

Two internship students spent their internship in two of the notoriously ill-equipped and poorly performing township schools and regularly wrote down their impressions.   Their impressions resonate well with the findings of the recently published report from the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU).  This (allegedly withheld) report provides an outspoken analysis of the education system, based on numerous visits and interviews.  We have linked the two sources, quoting from the students’ writings and linking them to findings of the NEEDU study.

First, no resource is more poorly used in South African schools than time.  The NEEDU report highlights high levels of teacher absenteeism and late coming in schools.  A fifth of teachers are absent on Fridays, rising to a third at the end of the month.  In many schools, principal and staff fail to build systems which drive the work of teaching and learning:

Our students wrote:

“We had the impression the principal does not check which teachers are present at what time at school. There is a register which teachers should sign upon arrival and departure. However, this is not a good indication since teachers can sign it the day after or when they didn’t arrive (in time).  Many teachers in our schools are quite relaxed about getting to class in time. They go to their classes 5 minutes late, 15 minutes late or sometimes not at all, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

Moreover, schools face extracurricular disruptions. According to NEEDU, 28% of teachers and principals face these disruptions frequently and another 38% occasionally, in particularly in large rural schools.  Late coming by teachers sets a bad example for learners and learner late-coming is a serious problem in 40% of schools and a moderate one in a further 35%.  Lessons are also often interrupted:

“Staff meetings often take place during school hours, whilst the teachers should be teaching. Learners are just left in the classroom without any form of guidance, tasks or supervision. In our schools, we haven’t seen any systematic plan in place to cover for absent teachers.”

The NEEDU report also refers to the fact that teachers consider the generous allocation of sick leave for cases of prolonged sickness as a right to be taken in full.  Ample time for system-wide assessment, including the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) in September further reduce time for teaching.  Additionally, time in classroom is often not used effectively, resulting in low ‘time on task’.  As the students recall:

“While a teacher is writing exercises on the blackboard, learners are idling, and they are only allowed to start copying once the teacher is finished. If learners finish their exercise before others are ready, they wait until everyone is finished. Again they sit idle until the correct answers are written on the blackboard, after which they copy.”

This shows the potential for small, incremental interventions with potentially huge impact on learning, much as what Doug lemov advocates for in ‘Teach Like a Champion’.

Under the Integrated Food Security Strategy, 9 million learners from grade R to grade 7 receive a daily meal at school.  For many it’s their only meal per day.  Unfortunately, the delivery and management has been a hit-and-miss affair in recent years.

“Many learners only get their first meal for the day at school after half past 10. When you are hungry it is difficult to focus.  And why distribute the food during periods teaching time? Why not distribute food for all learners during the long break?”

Another challenge the students observed was the lack of content knowledge and teaching skills in many teachers.

“The lack of content knowledge leads to teaching mistakes. We have seen this happen. We saw bright learners ask some questions about these mistakes, but teachers reacted angrily and ignored the mistake made. Teachers seem to be confident despite their lack of content knowledge.  The HOD for mathematics had very little mathematics understanding. It must be extremely difficult in such a position to motivate, oversee, guide and improve the other teachers.”

This lack of content and pedagogical knowledge with teachers has been extensively documented in recent years.  Grade 6 math teachers in rural schools scored second from the bottom for their content knowledge in a study of 14 African countries, outperforming only their Zambian counterparts.  The World Economic Forum ranks South Africa’s primary education system 132nd out of 144 countries—and last in mathematics and science (some reservations on the ranking here. I don’t agree with them, mainly because the quality of an education system includes the cost efficiency.)  The reasons for this lack of competence are diverse.  The NEEDU report dedicates a lot of attention to post provisioning within the education system:

“HODs and principals…are promoted to positions…without necessarily exhibiting superior subject knowledge, pedagogical skills or management capacity.”  “A very large part of the problem is that there is pressure to appoint officials to promotion posts using considerations other than merit. Criteria for evaluating teacher performance do not include measures identified in the research literature as constituting effective teaching, such as time on task, effective use of textbooks and materials, good communication, motivation and giving positive feedback.”

South Africa spends 6,2% of its GDP on education, more than any other country on the continent.  Principals get monthly sums for every student in their school. The money is intended to improve the school and get resources for the learners.  However, the students had many questions with how funds were spent:

“During our stay there was a problem with the water supply. Both of our schools couldn’t pay the water bills and because of this, water was disconnected. Food could not be cooked, toilets could not be flushed … How is this possible?”

The NEEDU report highlights the high ratio of personnel vs non-personnel costs.  On average, 86% of funds are spent on personnel, reaching ratios of higher than 90% in some provinces, leaving little room for expenditures on infrastructure, books and other learning materials.   The problem is old and the NEEDU reports cites rising salary costs, excess teachers as a result of urban migration, pressure from organized interest groups, policy ambiguity and inadequate information management as culprits.

Despite a long list of challenges, the students thoroughly enjoyed their time at their respective schools.  One element they appreciated was the sense of camaraderie and involvement among staff:

“Every morning all school staff gathers in the staff room to sing a hymn together and pray together. We found that this habit created a good team feeling. Thereafter the principal makes some announcements, mostly about administrative and logistical issues such as due dates for handing in documents, but sometimes also about issues that directly relate to the quality of teaching and learning. Other staff members can also make announcements. It is actually a nice way of giving everyone a chance to share information.”

The principal once raised the issue of corporal punishment which was still used by many teachers in the school. Most classes in a township school have 50 or more learners. The teachers have limited skills for classroom management. Teachers seldom differentiate their approaches. One of the reason being that there are too many learners to adapt to, but it also shows a lack of teaching skills. Many learners have problems to concentrate, especially in the morning.

Corporal punishment in schools was prohibited by Law in 1996.  However, statistics from the General Household Surveys 2012 indicate that 2.2 million learners (15.8%) experienced some kind of corporal punishment in schools.  Our students encountered the practice as well, deeply unsettling them and confirming the sense of disempowerment that many teachers feel, seeing corporate punishment as the only way to discipline learners:

“Methods of punishment we saw were being hit by a wooden stick on the hands or with the back of a blackboard wiper on the fingers, standing up with hands in the air for the whole lesson, or kneel down on the floor while making exercises in their workbook. The worst thing about this is learners seem to be used to this, and don’t care that much. They even laugh when other students are being hit. When we tried to discuss this with the teachers, they tried to avoid the conversation in every possible way. Alternatively, they said that corporal punishment is the only intervention that helps to discipline learners. There was no real openness to alternatives to reinforcement and punishment.”

After spending months in a township school it is easy to despair.  After all, media are filled with tales of South Africa’s education crisis.  Nevertheless, not all is gloom.  Many more black and coloured children are getting at least some formal education.  Around three-quarters of those aged 4-6 and 98% of those aged 7-15 are in full-time schooling.  Heavy investment in system-wide assessment has jolted districts and provinces into action.  Recent ANA results for numeracy and literacy hint that learning outcomes might be slightly improving.

Overall, these observations confirm our focus on improving learning outcomes through strengthening systems for professional development such as Professional Learning Communities, enhancing instructional leadership and improving subject advisors’ maths content knowledge.

Professional Learning Communities: Old Wine in New Bottles?

One of VVOB’s key areas for support in South Africa is supporting ministries at various levels to introduce Professional Learning Communities in schools. This gives implementation to Activity 3.3 in the national Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Development (ISPFTED), but above all VVOB supports this because it’s a cheap and effective way of professional development, something .

The first reaction from people when giving an introduction on PLCs is usually something like: we have seen this before, this is the same as the PWGs [Professional Working Groups, a previous and now defunct] etc. This is logical.  When asked to describe PLCs in one sentence, one could reasonably say: teachers regularly meeting to discuss issues relevant to their practice.  The purpose of this 2 hour introduction is to try to convey some of the finer print of PLCs:

  • PLCs start from a vision of teachers as professional, endowed with agency
  • PLCs consider teaching as a social profession, where collaboration is crucial
  • PLCs assume a collective responsibility for making sure that all learners can learn and reach intended outcomes
  • PLCs start from a data-driven, research-focused approach to teaching, with teachers continuously collecting, interpreting and acting upon classroom data to improve teaching and learning.

The main caveat for PLCs lies in the hurricane metaphor that Larry Cuban introduced so aptly.  Policy reforms usually create huge waves at the surface, but at the bottom of the sea, the storm is hardly noticeable.  Similarly, PLCs risk remaining policy on paper, or worse, becoming a compliance or tick-box issue. PLCs need time for trust to be developed among members, develop group dynamics and leadership and evolve from sharing to real collaboration.  In contrast, officials are usually and understandably impatient to ‘do something’ for the quality of teaching and learning.

With its partners, the Department of Basic Education, the South African Council for Educators and the Free State Department of Education, VVOB plans following support for PLCs:

  • Help DBE give the recently approved national guidelines nation-wide attention, such as by a National Colloquium.
  • Organize information events in every province for education officials
  • Organize 3-day workshops and follow-up activities for a groups of mid-level educators in every province, based on a pilot in Free State province
  • Help DBE design and implement an annual monitoring instrument for PLCs
  • Help SACE to promote PLCs as a tool for effective teacher development with education providers