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Public policy concerns what governments do, but also what they don’t do. In post-apartheid SA, a devastating schooling crisis has been treated as a non-issue to which governments have mostly responded with nondecisions.  

The depths of the “silent crisis” in SA education were detailed this week in a set of meticulous reports from Johannesburg think-tank the Centre for Development & Enterprise (CDE).  

The centre bluntly observes that “the majority of young people in our schools are not learning to read, write or add”. It emphasises that the cause is not a lack of resources, with the 2023 national budget allocating almost R300bn to basic education.  

The introduction of structured workbooks in classrooms and a stable curriculum produced some promising gains, but these gradually petered out, and were then wiped out by the Covid pandemic.  

SA sits at the very bottom of all credible international tables. Poorer countries spend far less and do far better. Almost four out of every five grade four pupils here cannot “retrieve explicitly stated information and make straightforward inferences” — they cannot “read for meaning”. Nearly half of all schools, on one account, are “cognitive wastelands”. 

Some of the causes for this dramatically poor performance lie in apartheid era policies that entrenched racial resource asymmetries and hollowed out black teacher training colleges. However, after 30 years of democracy SA continues to have too many unskilled and poorly motivated teachers, an often incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy, and failures of accountability across the basic education system. 

Plenty of remedies have been proposed for these problems that are grounded in evidence and in the successful reforms of other middle-income developing countries.  

School success varies widely. We know that four out of five teachers lack the subject knowledge and pedagogical skills needed to teach their subjects. Performance needs to be measured systematically and objectively to target the roots of such problems.

Incentives, and ultimately sanctions, must be put in place where they are required. School principals and senior teachers — often the key to improved performance — cannot continue to be appointed through flawed and union-manipulated processes.  

There are four major impediments to reform. The first concerns an infelicitous balance between the immediate political costs of reform (such as upsetting unions) and the long time it takes for improved outcomes to come through. Citing the experiences of countries like Peru, however, the CDE points to the possibility of meaningful improvement within an electoral cycle.  

Second, unions around the world typically block teacher performance management systems. In SA, accountability systems of all kinds are stymied by the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) which, according to a 2016 ministerial task team report commissioned in response to a “jobs for cash” scandal, is “in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education” in at least six of the nine provinces. 

The third impediment is parents, who favour content and pedagogy relevant to their own school days. Moreover, misconceiving appropriate language policy, they push for English language instruction too early in their children’s lives. In the weakest schools, they lack the confidence and knowledge to use the school governing body system to their children’s advantage.  

Finally, society’s decisionmakers and broader middle classes place their own children in the 20% of schools — mostly suburban or private — that function tolerably well. There is no substitute for political leadership that can turn today’s educational “unpolitics” into a politics of reform.

Parents need to be made aware of the damage that is being done to their children; the society’s elites need to be recruited into a reform project; and Sadtu needs to be faced down and forced to negotiate a new settlement for SA’s schools. Only a president can lead such an initiative. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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