In January, London-based publication, The Economist, published a report saying, “South Africa has one of the world’s worst education systems”. South Africa’s education system has been in a dire state; with a lack of both quality education and educators, as well as corruption, South Africa is at the bottom end of various international lists of education standards. According to The Economist’s report, South Africa ranks 75 out of 76 countries evaluated in a table of education systems drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2015. The table included countries such as Canada, Singapore, Estonia, Peru and Tunisia. The publication also reported that South Africa ranked at or near the bottom of various lists in a study conducted by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
The report came out a year after Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga admitted that South Africa’s education system was in somewhat of a crisis, after over one quarter of matric students failed their 2015 matric exams. According to Professor Salomé Human-Vogel, Deputy Dean of the UP Education Faculty, South Africa’s education system has been in a crisis for many years. She commented, “Before the dawn of a true democracy in 1994, the crisis we were facing was that of a racist education system [which] allocated resources unfairly and advantaged white learners at the expense of black learners. Education was a success for a small minority of the population, but a disaster for the majority of the South African population.” Prof. Human- Vogel also believes that the frequent change in curriculum, the lack of resources in some schools, as well as the large number of unqualified or underprepared teachers has further perpetuated this issue.
The Department of Basic Education has tried to better the system by investing in education, however, it does not seem to be making a major difference. About 6% of the country’s GDP is spent on education, compared to the average of 4.8% in EU countries.
In Prof. Human-Vogel’s opinion, investing in teachers would yield a better outcome. She said, “I would very much like to believe that South Africa can change our education system […] by investing in the teaching profession, by raising the status of the profession of teaching so that teachers are paid well and are highly regarded. We need well-qualified, passionate teachers who are committed to the calling of teaching to educate the generation of young people that will be the leaders of tomorrow. If teachers teach well, learners will learn.”
In recent years, the Department of Basic Education has tried to make things easier for students by lowering pass marks in subjects that are holding students back. An example is their recent decision to pass students who pass all their subjects, except Maths, but acquire a mark of at least 20%. The Department has also decided to align the pass marks, so that the Grade 7 to 9 pass marks reflect those of Grades 10 to 12, namely that a pass mark of 30% in at least four subjects and 40% for the remaining four subjects (including home language). Prof. Human-Vogel doesn’t think that all these changes will benefit students, saying, “While I understand the argument that poor marks in Maths are holding learners back [who] may never need Mathematics later on in life, it creates a problem for those who do want to access further learning opportunities where Mathematics is required.” She also went on to say that “South African graduates of accredited institutions of higher learning can be confident that their degrees compare with the best in the world, and we need to be careful that we do not tamper with our ability to be globally competitive, by lowering the standards to pass subjects such as Mathematics”.
Prof. Human-Vogel says that going forward, South Africa needs to “improve the quality of education by improving the quality of teaching and learning, as well as improve the quality of the environment in which teachers teach, and learners learn. You ensure that teachers feel valued, so that they are committed to the profession and to teaching well. You ensure that the environment enables learners to succeed, and you remove the obstacles to an enabling environment by sourcing schools well. All [of] this requires a healthy and growing economy that creates wealth, so that the financial resources are there to invest in education, and so that poverty can be tackled, which will ensure greater access to education for a greater proportion of the economy. For all of this, you need a healthy government who are incorruptible, and who are focused on serving not their own needs, but the needs of all
Image: Mises Institute South Africa