“Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.” These are the wise words of former president Nelson Mandela who celebrates his 91st birthday this month. Indeed prophetic words calling on all South Africans to account for the way in which education is used to ensure the success of South Africa’s nation-building project.
Education forms the cornerstone of this project, as it entails the transfer of knowledge, skills and values. If education fails, all the effort up to now will be in vain. Already, a very disconcerting picture is painted by researchers investigating an education system which fails to produce skilled citizens.
We, at the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA), share the concern over the state of affairs in education. For this reason, SBA recently facilitated a three-day leadership and management course to approximately fifty teachers, under the auspices of the Enkwenkwezi Trust. What struck me was the commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers who sacrificed their winter holidays working through the modules from 9am - 4pm. They clearly thirsted for the knowledge we shared with them.
This experience has compelled me to critically question not only the nature and extent of support given to teachers but also the role which office-based education officials, specifically appointed for the task, can be expected to play in this regard. If the majority of the teaching personnel at ground level are prepared to perform their daily tasks with such commitment and enthusiasm, how is it possible that most of our schools are struggling to deliver quality education?
My observation during all our training sessions is that many of the teachers do not have an adequate grasp of the new curriculum. It was expected of an entire generation of teachers trained during the previous dispensation to undergo a change in mindset from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ in a matter of weeks. To them it was and still is an uphill battle, as a few weeks’ training in the new curriculum is simply not sufficient and often leaves them more confused and despondent.
In contrast, the generation of teachers now being trained has a better understanding of the new curriculum after four years of training. It is no wonder, therefore, that they are considered a ray of light by many principals and their senior management.
However, making a change of mindset from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ is possible. With proper guidance and sensible management of these changes teachers will be able to make headway. Unfortunately, we have a chronic shortage of experienced and in some instances indifferent office-based education officials to give teachers step-by-step guidance and top-class support. In some provinces, especially in urban areas, this expertise is readily available. These schools also have access to the internet and resource centres where teachers can get the necessary assistance.
There are, however, education district offices in the former homelands, rural as well as urban areas that lack expertise to give teachers the necessary guidance and support. To make matters worse, those schools do not even have access to the internet or to well-equipped resource centres.
No wonder most of the schools in our country are struggling to provide quality education to our children. The entire curriculum delivery process is compromised due to a lack of support and this I wish to motivate by means of the following diagram:
On the input side of the diagram, it is expected of the governing body, principal and teachers to implement the curriculum and to choose a medium of instruction through which teaching and assessment will take place. This responsibility is bestowed upon them through the South African Schools Act and holds
them responsible for ensuring quality education. In the event of this not happening, the Schools Act goes as far as placing schools under curatorship.
It is all well and good, but in practice there are a number of challenges undermining the effective application of the law. These include, inter alia:
- poorly educated parents who serve on governing bodies that do not have any knowledge of school governance and poor curriculum implementation by the principal and
- educators who, immersed in a host of administrative and social responsibilities, also have to deal with challenges such as a lack of mother tongue education, sound subject knowledge, proper lesson planning, effective discipline, co-operation from parents, suitable resources and effective school administration.
This is further aggravated by poverty and violence within communities where schools are situated.
These challenges embody the Achilles’ heel of South African education and unless every South African works together in finding solutions for it, the quality of education will not improve.
In my opinion, the solution lies partly in a complete rethinking of the responsibilities given to every role player by the Schools Act and in the rendering of professional support to help these role players to carry out their responsibilities effectively and efficiently.
Such a comprehensive rethinking is a prerequisite for the effective functioning of our schools and the successful implementation of the curriculum. As set out in the first pillar of the diagram, it starts with establishing a curriculum committee. This is a committee consisting of the principal, senior personnel, subject heads and other staff with expertise and experience. Their task is to give guidance and to ensure that each curriculum process is implemented in accordance with departmental guidelines.
These processes entail, inter alia, the development of learning programmes, work schedules and lesson plans and also includes, as outlined in the second pillar of the diagram, purchasing and provision of teaching resources, monitoring of teaching practices, observation of learners in the classroom, compiling portfolios of learners’ best projects and updating learners’ personal profiles.
The third pillar of the diagram deals with processes, such as collecting evidence of learners’ work, rendering support to learners who struggle to perform academically, monitoring learner progress, managing the appeal process when parents are not satisfied with children not progressing to the next level, and placement of learners in a new grade or vocational band.
These three pillars of the diagram must, however, continuously be subjected to moderation of the curriculum content taught in the classroom and the moderation of assessment of projects, tests and examinations. If this does not happen the integrity of each and every curriculum process is compromised, because not only is the curriculum committee unable to determine the quality of work done in the classroom, but they will also be unable to determine whether assessment is done according to the prescribed guidelines.
In this regard office-based education officials have a crucial role to play. Their specialist input, together with the receptiveness of the teachers to have their planning, teaching practices and assessment moderated and the co-operation of the broader school community, can strengthen the basis of the entire curriculum delivery process.
The authorities therefore need to address the lack of able and committed office-based education officials and need to assess their ability to provide the required support, ensure the receptiveness of teachers and mobilise partnerships between schools and communities. However, attention should first be given to existing office-based education officials that fail to provide support to schools.
During our training session some teachers related amusingly how they often visit the offices of officials to enquire about support, but just found a jacket hanging over the chair whilst the official was nowhere to be found.
Such behaviour not only destroys Nelson Mandela’s vision of education being the mighty weapon to change South Africa for the better, but also dishonours his legacy. Each one of us, no matter whom and what we are, have a shared responsibility to ensure that education in South Africa is successful. It is in the interest of us all and in the interest of the broader nation-building project.
Christo van der Rheede is the Chief Executive Officer of the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans