Basic education minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: KOPANO TLAPE
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: KOPANO TLAPE

The School Monitoring Survey for 2017-2018 published by the department of basic education last week demonstrates that the ANC government has made some progress in improving education. 

The survey is extensive and researchers visited 2,000 schools spread across the country measuring tangible inputs such as availability of learning materials, running water, libraries and classrooms. Since the last comparable survey in 2011 the most striking progress has been made in the provision of libraries or media centres with 62% of schools now with libraries as opposed to 45% five years ago.

Access to textbooks, which has been a problem area for many years, was also impressive and was found to be consistently high. For example, 85% of Grade 12’s surveyed had the books they needed.

The slowest progress made was in providing physical infrastructure. Only 59% of schools met required standards; 30% were without running water; and 20% without adequate sanitation. Sixty-seven percent of schools had adequate classrooms for their number of pupils.

While the survey is helpful in auditing the physical inputs into education, what it does not do is measure the quality of teaching and learning. This, we know, from a large volume of research by academics based at our universities is where the real problem lies.

When looked at comparatively, SA just does not get bang for its buck when it comes to education. The country spends over 6% of GDP on education – a ratio which compares well with the richest club of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – but gets poor outcomes. Half of all children drop out of school before Grade 12. SA regularly comes bottom in global mathematics and language benchmarking tests, beaten by its much poorer African neighbours.

The IMF in March published a paper on SA education in which it drew together the extensive domestic research that has been done over the past decade or so. Its main point is that while SA has done well in improving access and inputs into education, quality has lagged. Education has remained historically, racially and spatially unequal. Putting more resources into poor schools, while important, will not unconditionally improve outcomes. Attention must be focused on how to improve quality.

There is no big secret to this. At the heart of teaching and learning is the teacher. Teachers in poorer schools tend to have lower subject content knowledge and are products of poor pedagogical practices themselves, such as rote learning and recitation.

While teachers do participate in in-service training, the survey shows that the average spent a year is 42 hours, which is up from 36. Basic education minister Angie Motshekga says this is way below the target of 80 hours set by her department.

One of the reasons for this is disputes between teacher unions and the department over training. There is also rigid resistance by unions to the idea of individual testing, which could help teachers identify the areas they need to focus on.

Teacher unions have also vehemently opposed meaningful incentives for teachers, which could be used both to attract good teachers into the system and to direct good teachers into poor schools.

This logjam in improving the quality of education must be broken if SA is to break out of stagnation. Good education is virtuous in so many ways: its good for productivity; for individuals who can raise their incomes; and there is evidence too that it is good for long-term growth.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is a convert to the gospel of the fourth industrial revolution and frequently preaches its relevance for economic growth and prosperity. But to get the fourth industrial wheel turning, SA needs to be much more focused on empowering teachers than it is now.