Overcoming the educational hurdles of the past

11 January 2013

This year South Africa enters the home straight as we prepare to celebrate 20 years of freedom and democracy in 2014. As a young nation we have come a long way in a relatively short space of time and have much to celebrate.

While there are still many challenges and more needs to be done, conditions in South Africa have fundamentally improved with each passing day since 1994. Our solid foundation promises a sound future for our country and its people.

It would be difficult to talk about our journey and successes over the last 19 years of democracy without singling out the great strides we have achieved as a nation in education.

Government’s determination with regard to education has begun to undo the deliberate under-education policy of the apartheid era, where for over 40 years black South Africans were denied an education.

The apartheid government made it clear that the education of black South Africans, under the 1953 Bantu Education Act, was designed to teach African learners to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" regardless of an individual's abilities and aspirations.

In the now infamous words, Minster of Native Affairs Hendrik F. Verwoerd, explained the apartheid government's education policy:

“There is no space for him (the black South African) in the European Community above certain forms of labour. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze.”

It was this thinking that informed and entrenched a separate and unequal education system. The new democratic government inherited this unequal education system in 1994. It faced   the mammoth task of dismantling it to create a unified education system.

Government had to reform education from top to bottom; new legal and regulatory policy frameworks had to be put in place, including the establishment of organisations and institutions that created the conditions for effective transformation from the old to the new.

Today our educational system is more fair and balanced. It has resulted in a steady decline in the percentage of adults who have not received an education. 

The Census 2011 showed that individuals aged 20 and older, who have no schooling, halved from 19,1 per cent in 1996 to 8,6 per cent in 2011. Those with education higher than Grade 12 increased from 7,1 per cent to 12,3 per cent during the same time period.

President Jacob Zuma recently stated that the country’s education system had “done well” saying that currently “nine million school children do not pay school fees”.

Census 2011 shows that the enrolment for the five-year-old age group was at 22,5 per cent in 1996 and leapt to 81,2 per cent in 2011. For the six-year-old age group, these figures were 49,1 per cent in 1996 and 92,7 per cent in 2011.

Our holistic approach saw the introduction of the National Nutrition Programme which feeds approximately 8,8 million learners in 20 905 primary and secondary schools.

The recently released matric results are also a useful barometer to assess how far we have already come.

The pass rate of the class of 2012 stands at 73,9 per cent which is a massive increase from a pass rate of only 60,7 per cent in 2009.

Releasing the 2012 matric results, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said: “We’re encouraged by notable improvements in the education of children and society. Sustained improvements on matric results are a consequence of systemic interventions for strengthening and raising performance in all levels of the system.”

These interventions include the implementation of the revised Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) for Grades R, 1 to 3 and 10 in 2012; Grades 4 to 6 and 11 in 2013; and Grades 7 to 9 and 12 in 2014.

CAPS helps improve the quality of teaching and learning by focusing on the content per term and the required assessment tasks for each term.

Teachers are being empowered with unambiguous curriculum and assessment statements. This helps in improving learners’ ability to count, read and write.

The education department has a national strategy for improving literacy and numeracy which has assisted in improving the quality of education.

Furthermore, the introduction of the annual national assessments (ANA) helps benchmark the literacy and numeracy levels in the country so that it can be measured.

The Department of Basic Education has embarked on an ambitious programme known as Action Plan 2014 to create an integrated and well-functioning schooling system in 2025.

The vision is for pupils to attend school on time, every day, and take their schoolwork seriously. By 2025 we will have teachers who are confident, well-trained, and continually improving their capabilities.

The role of parents cannot be over emphasised. Parents need to monitor their children’s progress; understand school processes; attend school functions; ensure their children are on time for school; and mostly that homework is done.

A 2012 paper by the North Carolina State University (USA) entitled “Does Capital at Home Matter More than Capital at School?” found that pupils who attended weaker schools, but whose families were supportive of their education and involved in school life performed better academically than students who attended effective schools but whose families were disengaged.

For now the attention and accolades are rightfully being showered on the class of 2012, who have excelled and have set the benchmark for the future.

The class of 2012 is of special significance in our democratic journey, affectionately called South Africa’s “born frees” since most learners were born in the year of the first free and democratic elections.

As we approach our 20 years of freedom and democracy, the education that we have delivered and the continuous effort to improve it ensures that the future remains bright not only for the class of 2012 but for the entire country.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)