Education, broadly conceptualised, is identified as a key priority and driver of the National Development Plan objectives. The extent to which all sectors, private and public can create the educational infrastructure needed to support a thriving economy, adopt a shared commitment to increase the value placed on education and improve the educational programmes and outcomes at each level, will determine the success and sustainability of our development.
Thus the NDP conceptualises education broadly, starting at foundation phase – or early childhood development – (ECD) to research and development (R&D). It argues for a focus on growing the capacity (quantity) and improving quality at all levels, as well as improving coherence between different players, institutional types and between these and the labour market.
Availability of high-level skills in the country is critical to drive economic growth and development. Availability of skills in turn is largely dependent on significant improvements in the quality of schooling outcomes and a more equitable distribution in learning opportunities.
As reflected in the recently published 20 Year Review of Government, significant progress has been made in education. There is however a general agreement amongst all in society that our education system is performing below its potential. There is also agreement that the problems are evident in the entire education-skills pipeline, from ECD to basic education to post-school to the labour market.
There have been a number of initiatives to try and address some of these challenges, but learning outcomes have not improved. The outputs at each level of the education system and the quality of these outputs are mostly low and poor. The country is not getting adequate returns for the substantial investment in education.
Efforts to ensure increased access to quality early childhood development services have been slow and varied. Consequently, this
very important phase of education and skill development is lagging behind and is marred with a myriad of conceptual and implementation challenges.
Attainment in basic education has increased, but the quality of education is still a major challenge. Consequently education outcomes are far below par. Completion of secondary school education is still very low, with many learners dropping out of school after the compulsory phase, constraining the participation in vocational and higher education.
The education system is not meeting the skills needs
The size and shape of the education and training system is undesirable for a country faced with
challenges of youth unemployment and skills shortages.
The vocational education sector is also performing below par, not producing enough artisans and technicians and other desperately needed middle level skills. In addition, participation rates in higher education have not increased substantially despite increases in enrolments. The enrolments in critical subjects such as mathematics and science in schools is still very low. Consequently enrolments in areas such as engineering, science and computing are also low in higher education.
There is an urgent need to expand the system and improve quality. Expansion is however not just about making room for ever-higher numbers. These numbers must be directed in the right areas of study, to the appropriate kind of institution and towards a sensible mix of the various levels within the post-school sector.
One of the urgent priorities is to resolve the structural and systemic issues. There needs to be a clearly understood identity of each institution in the post-school system. At the end of elementary school, students must know what options are available to them and what the purpose is of each institution.
They must be able to move between colleges and universities, between different universities, between schools and post-school institutions and between educational provision and the world of work.
To change our post-school shape and size, the vocational education sector must be significantly expanded. The expansion should be progressive and follow the improvements in quality and success. Improved quality will instil confidence in the college sector and attract learners.
The NDP proposes that the priority with this sector should be to strengthen it and fix the issues related to quality teaching and learning as well as improving its performance, i.e. increasing the success rate as well as the relevance of its programmes in industry – thus the employability of its graduates.
This includes developing good governance standards and improving administration of colleges as well as adopting quality assurance measures, especially relating to curricula and training.
According to Gewer (2010: 16), colleges are facing a credibility crisis with industry to the extent that employees are better off trained in the workplace than VCET colleges. This underscores the need for colleges to reconsider their role with a view to improve their education and training offerings for the benefit of their stakeholders.
The report further points out, correctly so, that partnerships lack the backing of strong public policy, regulatory frameworks and incentive schemes which are the foundations for establishing a partnership culture in vocational education and training.
The university sector equally needs expansion.
The NDP recognises that high quality knowledge production cannot be fully realised with a low student participation rate of 17%. Similarly in the current elite higher education system, participation rates cannot significantly improve for the previously disadvantaged. The Plan recommends that the participation rate be increased to over 30% and that enrolments in the university sector, including private universities sector, be increased from 950 000 in 2010 to more than 1.62 million in 2030, a 70% increase.
Concurrent with the national attention towards expansion it is also necessary to ensure that quality and excellence are sustained and continuously upgraded in all the institutions. While larger numbers of students now have access, the graduation rates are poor and dropout rates are high, infrastructure at some institutions requires substantial investment, academic staff has limited qualifications and is not being replenished – and serious issues of race, class and gender remain. Under-performance of students will not change spontaneously.
The NDP further proposes that graduation rates should increase to more than 25%. Achieving a 25% graduation rate will require an increase in the number of graduates from the combined total of 167 469 for private and public higher education institutions to a combined total of 425 000 by 2030.
Fixing the education pipeline
Decisive action needs to be taken in key aspects of the educational process – and at key points of the educational ‘pipeline’ to facilitate positive change in outcomes. The expectations and responsibilities placed upon the post-school sector should be understood in the context of its inputs. The poor performance of the South African basic education system – in combination with socio-economic background and other co-factors – places a greater burden on the post-school sector as it prepares young people for their various transitions and provides a skilled workforce in the economy.
Most of the shortcomings in education can be traced back to poor preparation at foundation level. This consequently trickles down (or up) in the schooling system. Learner achievement data for South Africa suggest that particularly large inequalities are evident as early as the third grade and that the school system is not succeeding in closing such gaps thereafter, emphasising the importance of early educational interventions.
As argued in the NDP and by other researchers (Branson et al. 2012), putting more resources into education is not the solution. Fixing a few basic things that could bring about improvements independent of socio-economic context will go a long way in improving educational outcomes. This does not mean additional resources are not important.
Improving measures of performance across the system
In the absence of good quality data and information, most analysts use the NSC results to gauge, to some extent, the performance of the public schooling system. South Africa now has Annual National Assessments, which also represents a point of measure of the performance of the education system although they do not get as much publicity and analysis as the NSC results.
Then there are the other international tests such as TIMMS, SACMEQ, PIRLS, which SA par ticipates in and they also provide some data points that help gauge performance of the system and tend to be widely used and quoted.
At a macro level, the results of all these tests do confirm the two system narrative. Most of the poor performing schools (and thus their lear ners) are from poor schools, while the best performers are from the wealthy schools.
The problem with this narrative is that it does not recognise the poor ‘good’ schools and the improvements that are being made by some of these poor schools. As a result, there is failure to recognise that there is some improvement in the public schooling system, that whilst it is not perfect, the poor part of the system does contribute significantly to the pool of NSC graduates and this is not only with respect to ordinary passes; but as the Minister of Basic Education reiterated in her speech when announcing 2014 NSC results, most of learners who got distinctions in the 2014 NSC results were from the poor schools.
It is not impossible to have different measure points of performance in the system. Learners in each grade write exams at least twice a year, but these are not made public and only end with the learners and parents. Districts (at least most of these) collate these results and have a good sense of performance at the schools.
With the NSC results it is impossible to understand and identify consistent patterns of performance over time and across the school. To some extent they tell us a bit about the school improvement interventions emphasised by schools and provinces at Grade 12. It is also difficult to know which of the interventions introduced by the DBE over time works and under which circumstances. Thus we don’t know what it will take to bring dramatic improvement in performance in education for different contexts.
The importance of effective administration
At the centre of improving performance in education is the department’s internal capacity to implement education plans as well as establishing a culture of adherence to, and enforcement of, the minimum standards set in the system. Policy reforms and proposed interventions must be accompanied by clarity of purpose and capacity for execution.
Execution capacity must extend across the system and into all the schools. Just like teachers, administrators require continuous
professional development in order to reconstruct new practices in light of new expectations about teaching and learning. Even with strong leaders and teachers in every school, instruction will not change without rigorous standards or clear expectations around teaching and learning.
The current debates around the need to dismantle colonialism’s assumptions in respect of our University curricula (captured cogently by Shay in Mail and Guardian) are very important in the current post-merger context. The texture and effectiveness of the higher education system’s contribution towards building a just and prosperous democratic society is still in question, given some of the unresolved inherited inequalities that continue to militate against an open and equal opportunity structure.
At another level the question of the relationship between education and polity and economy is equally critical as some of the challenges in education can only be resolved through political and other interventions. In other words, the solutions to some of the
challenges lie outside of the education sector itself.
Or differently put, the problems of education emanate in large measure from the wider society and the education system may in turn reinforce and perpetuate these in the way it functions – for example, the problem of students from poor families going to poor schools and universities. Hence the promise and potency of the NDP in identifying education as a key concern for society as a whole that should transcend narrow sectional interests, however defined.