A 2016 ministerial task team found that, like in Mexico, the country’s largest teacher union, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu), ‘is in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education’ in ‘six and possibly more of the nine provinces’.
The general silence at the shocking state of our education system has, thankfully, been punctuated by the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls). The question now is whether the outrage will be followed by action.
The Pirls results make for grim reading. Only 19% of South Africa’s Grade 4 learners can read for meaning (in any of the official languages). South Africa, with a per capita income of $7 055, came last in Pirls, performing much worse than similar middle-income countries which took the same test.
For example, in Egypt, with a $3 699 per capita income, 55% of grade 4s can read for meaning, whereas in Brazil ($7 507), 61% can. This is better than even our Grade 6s, only 44% of whom can read for meaning.
What are we going to do about it? Let’s start by looking elsewhere for inspiration. When comparable Latin American countries were dealt a similar blow recently, they responded by initiating wide-ranging reforms. We can learn from their experience.
In 2013, Jaime Saavedra was appointed education minister of Peru. Three weeks later, the release of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results revealed that Peru had been ranked last in tests of Grade 9 students on reading, science and maths. As Saavedra later stated:
“Peru was last of the 65 countries of Pisa. And that was a shock. We could have decided to play the results down to say: Peru has improved since 2009 (which it had); or: We are better than many countries that didn’t even take Pisa, or: Pisa is an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) examination that is alien to our culture and priorities. But we didn’t go down that route. Instead, we decided to own the problem, to use these results to say: Look, we’re not in trouble. We’re in deep trouble. Then education was on the front page. Education is never on the front page of the newspaper.”
Building on popular outrage, Saavedra instituted a rapid system-wide reform programme. It consisted of teacher and principal entrance exams and promotion evaluations; school bonuses paid based on performance; the use of performance data from nationwide student tests; the introduction of teacher professional development standards; greater responsibilities for principals and administrative staff responsible for hiring processes; and expansion of early childhood education.
Part of the reason these radical reforms could be introduced is because Saavedra took care to explain their importance in a coordinated communications campaign which generated public support for them. By the time Peru tested again in Pisa 2015, these reforms generated rapid gains: a 5% improvement in science and maths; 4% in reading.
Another instructive example comes from Mexico, which had its own Pisa shock when the country came last in 2009. In response, the media raised education as a major issue.
Investigations revealed that public teachers were routinely absent — 13% never showed up at all. Teachers buying their way into the profession was a common practice; the dominant union (SNTE) would act as a broker for retirees selling their posts to new teachers. All this is eerily familiar to anybody with even a passing knowledge of union dynamics in our own education system.
Public outcry in Mexico intensified after a documentary titled “De Panzazo” (Barely Getting By) was released by a political advocacy organisation. The documentary highlighted union corruption and teacher indifference, putting unions on the back foot against an outraged citizenry.
Following the election of a new president in 2012, reforms were pushed through against the wishes of the union. They were ambitious but unfortunately could not be effectively implemented or sustained in the face of determined union opposition, and the defeat of the pro-reform president in the next election.
No accountability in SA
Compare these strong and determined reactions to Minister Angie Motshekga’s response to our Pirls results: “The decline in our Pirl results can largely be attributed to the disruptions caused by Covid-19. This disappointing outcome does not reflect a deterioration in the overall functioning of our basic education system but rather the unprecedented and catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the education of an entire generation of children.”
The truth is that Covid exacerbated what was already a weak education system. Blaming Covid-19 is disingenuous: some countries actually managed to improve their average Pirls score in 2021, while South Africa experienced the largest decline since 2016 of all participating nations.
Instead of taking ownership of the problem, like Saavedra did, Motshekga has chosen denialism. In Parliament, she ludicrously exclaimed that “our kids can read”.
Thankfully, public outrage has been louder than it has ever been. One national newspaper labelled it a “disgrace” on its front page; Professor Nic Spaull called it a “generational catastrophe”; and, following the Centre for Development and Enterprise’s (CDE) lead, Professor Jonathan Jansen called for the minister to be fired.
South Africa needs far more of this outrage and must channel it productively into a broad coalition for reform.
So far, several ideas have been floated for improving South Africa’s early-grade reading crisis. These include providing workbooks to all children in the foundation phase; training teachers face-to-face, providing them with materials and using coaches to help them teach reading; and training and equipping teaching assistants to assist with reading. CDE supports these measures, which have been demonstrated to be highly effective, to the extent that they can be afforded.
However, this does not go nearly far enough.
Our poor Pirls results are a symptom of a systemwide crisis. This crisis extends into other areas of learning, including maths and science — our Grade 5 maths results declined between 2015 and 2019 on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timms) — and teaching (only 41% of our Grade 6 maths teachers have “good proficiency”, as measured by a comparative African assessment, far worse than Zimbabwe’s 87% and Kenya’s 95%).
Experts have suggested that, despite earlier gains, even before Covid-19 struck, our system likely hit a “low ceiling”, “beyond which it is not possible to extend” without reforming certain “superstructures”.
In a recent series of reports, The Silent Crisis: Time to fix South Africa’s schools, CDE analysed the root causes of our education system’s challenges. Our analysis puts our poor performance in context and recognises the legacies of the past, but stresses the ongoing weaknesses associated with the poor quality and commitment of our teachers; accountability deficits throughout the system; and a compromised, incompetent education bureaucracy.
This last point is crucial. A 2016 ministerial task team found that, like in Mexico, the country’s largest teacher union, Sadtu, “is in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education” in “six and possibly more of the nine provinces”.
That is why the first step of any systemwide reform programme must be to end Sadtu’s control over education by prohibiting cadre deployment and taking real steps to tackle corruption.
As the examples from Peru and Mexico show, improving public education is an inherently political process. They also show that reform, although difficult, can happen.
All of us need to roll up our sleeves, make a noise about this disgraceful situation and demand a government that will own the challenge by initiating meaningful, systemwide reforms.
Written by Stefan Schirmer and Rehan Visser, Center for Development and Enterprise
Article published by the Daily Maverick