One of the most common misconceptions and phrases you hear in South Africa when people talk about the education crisis is "We spend more than other countries on education - why doesn't it get any better?" Here are three, important reasons:
1. We didn't spend on education for decades
Before the 1950s, other than a handful of religious and independent schools, there were no places that took in black South African learners. There was no public education system that included black learners.
Hendrik Verwoerd between 1958 and 1966 rolled out the infamous 'Bantu Education' system that created large-scale access to schools for most learners in South Africa. But, in doing so, the state proceeded for the the decades until democracy spending 10 times on a white learner what they spent on a black learner - not to mention the terrible consequences of their racist standards, curricula and under-training of teachers in black schools.
Imagine spending nothing from 1900 to 1966, then a one-in-ten spending ratio for 85 percent of the population from 1966 to 1994.
Imagine spending nothing from 1900 to 1966, then a one-in-ten spending ratio for 85 percent of the population from 1966 to 1994. (Here's a handy visual.) That is a compounded deficit that takes a very long time to fix.
Even if we were doing everything right in our education budget, we are playing catch-up from several decades of no spending, which would take a long time to fix.
2. Teacher quality is the single most important feature of an education system - and we haven't spent on improving teacher quality.
There is virtually no disagreement in the research as to what makes for a good education system. The quality of the teacher is the single most important feature of any good education system. It's also what we spend the most on in our education budget – see below.
The problem in South Africa is that, though we have done well to increase the wages of educators we have done almost nothing to improve their teaching practice or content knowledge. Paying for salaries is, by far, the largest item in the budget- 68 percent. Yet data shows that especially in South Africa's poorest schools, a significant proportion of South African educators cannot teach because they are not able to understand content from Grade 6 curricula. Respected education researcher Nic Spaull uses this useful illustrative example of a graph in a regional Grade 6 math test that only 38 percent of teachers could answer correctly:
That's just knowing the basics about the subject you are teaching - let alone understanding anything about the practice of being a teacher: classroom management, creating interesting projects, differentiating based on the abilities of learners etc. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. The quality of the teaching that happens in classrooms was of course caused by the abysmal training under apartheid. And whilst there has been a push by government to increase the number of teachers enrolled at teaching in university (studying teaching shot up from 35,275 in 2008 to 104,000 in 2013 with teacher graduates increasing from 5,939 to 16,758 over the same period), again, quality remains a problem. In particular, the quality of university programs that do not focus on pedagogy, as well as the low bar to entry for teaching has both created major challenges to attracting talented, capable educators.
Educators who do not know how to teach aren't really teaching, regardless of the content. And, as Spaull again notes, increased spending has also not done much for other vital factors, for instance – South Africa has the highest teacher absenteeism of 14 African countries, indicating the high lack of accountability in the system overall. Put simply, 68 percent of our budget is currently going towards educators who are neither empowered, nor accountable for teaching to an adequate standard.
There are many challenges to unbundle: some financial, some political, and some historical. But the research is clear: as long as we do not improve teacher quality, increased spending in education won't make a significant difference in education outcomes.
3. Financial mismanagement and budget priorities.
There are also very serious issues around corruption, mismanagement and spending in the education department as a whole. Corruption Watch last year listed schools as the top corruption hotspot in the country for graft, last week Angie Mosthekga had to account to Scopa for R2 billion in irregular spending in her department in the last year and the cash-for-principal scandal is still fresh in our memories. This is not so much an education issue as a broader issue of good governance and accountability but it does play an important part in the outcomes we see in schools.
Lastly, there are a number of critical spending items that need to be prioritised more. Research largely indicates that early childhood education is vital, we need more wrap-around services in poor communities (such as nutrition, social services and special needs) as they can have dire implications for children if neglected. And we need to be spending a lot more on actively professionalising teaching: better higher education training for teachers, more professional development, more incentives for talented young professionals to choose teaching as a career. Some factors, like infrastructure, nutrition etc. are important. And in some places - like the Eastern Cape - this is still at levels that would negatively impact learning even if teacher quality was better.
And lastly, in an ideal world, we would also be doing the vital work of researching curricula and pedagogical strategies that would promote critical thinking, creativity, fluidity with technology, and an engagement with a South Africa that promotes our Constitutional values of equality and freedom.
The education crisis is certainly a cause for dismay. But there are a couple of ways to meaningfully address and improve the situation for learners in South Africa. The first is by dispelling myths. The reason why spending, for instance, hasn't improved the system outright is not mysterious but in fact very fixable and grounded in real historical and political consequences.
The main take-away from what we currently know is this: the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of teachers in class, teaching every day. We need to focus our spending on attracting, developing and maintaining talent that can go into the classroom. Once we drastically improve training, incentivise the best young graduates to go into teaching and provide enough reasons to stay in the profession, we will start seeing real improvements in schools across the country.