IT IS no secret that public sector basic education in South Africa is in poor shape. In its latest Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum rates South African primary schools 132nd out of 144 countries, and 115th in access to primary school education. It has also found that the system is failing to achieve basic standards of numeracy and literacy in Grades 3 and 6.
Yet, the denial last year by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga that there is a crisis in basic education still stands.
Since then the government has taken action with the launch in July this year by Ms Motshekga and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe of the National Education Collaboration Trust and the National Education Council. In keeping with the government’s National Development Plan, interventions are intended to raise human capacity, improve school management and district support, and to establish results-orientated mutual accountability between schools and communities.
In the 2012-13 financial year, education has accounted for almost R207bn of the national budget, or about 6% of gross domestic product.
At home, however, a rapidly growing number of parents across the socioeconomic spectrum are taking matters into their own hands and, often at great sacrifice, are enrolling their children at independent schools. According to statistics compiled by the South African Institute of Race Relations, the number of pupils enrolled at independent schools has risen by more than 50% since 2000.
Notably, in the Eastern Cape, where outcomes at public schools have been shown to be the worst in the country, the number of enrolments at independent schools has risen by 422%, establishing a correlation between a demand for better basic education and the migration to independent schools.
Nationally, between 2000 and 2010, the number of public schools fell 9% while the number of independent schools rose 44%, accounting for about 5% of pupils undergoing basic education at the country’s 2,500 independent schools, according to the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa. Umalusi, the government’s quality assurance agency, says there are about 3,500 independent schools registered. The number of unregistered schools is not known.
But the role of independent schools in tackling the challenges in education extends beyond the 5% at independent schools, says Anastasia Krystallidis, executive head at SAHETI. "It is now more important than ever in a transformative South Africa."
SAHETI, which has a Hellenistic orientation, is an independent school in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs. The school recognises that many deserving pupils are unable to afford education at an independent school, and offers bursaries or part-bursaries to pupils who excel academically, in sport or in cultural activities.
"Another area where independent schools add value is in twinning with state schools (and) sharing expertise and resources. An example is the initiative by SAHETI’s pre-primary school which is aimed at helping with skills development of educators from disadvantaged schools in neighbouring townships by sharing knowledge on lesson preparation and parent interaction, to add value to their educational offering."
The recruitment and training of future teachers falls within the ambit of independent schools, and they should endeavour to create enthusiasm among tomorrow’s teachers today, says Ms Krystallidis. "It is only through the development of teacher skills that we can merge into classrooms that education will cater for the needs of our country and its tumultuous socio-historical path."
Nonetheless, the state of education is of grave concern and it affects everyone in the country, says Ms Krystallidis. The problems originate in two areas, she says. The first is delivery of equipment, material and infrastructure and, second and most important, is the quality of teaching.
"The education system is not producing enough teachers and those teachers who enter the field are often ill prepared for their task. Teacher training should be focused much more on practical experience. Education students should be sent to more and different schools.
"Second, the poor calibre of teachers is a deep malaise. What we have is a dumbing down of teachers. Teachers must realise that they are the key to success (in basic education). They should take far greater academic responsibility."
Ms Krystallidis says it is of national importance that the profession is elevated beyond the low status it now endures. "It is necessary also to accept that the malaise exists and a culture of discipline is introduced to the profession. People at the top have to be held to account.
"In an economic climate in which there is a great need for jobs, the opportunity for creating teaching jobs should be pursued, particularly if the national benefits in alleviating the country’s education crisis are considered," she says.
CEO of Eden Schools, Allan Zulberg, is critical of the proliferation of independent schools and says they are not necessarily the answer to the country’s problems in basic education. "In some ways the explosion of private schools can be a negative influence towards uplifting broad-based basic education by drawing resources away from government schools. Do we really need two examining bodies? I could easily argue it is elitist."
Eden, with a 40-year history in South Africa, is part of a group of educational institutions operating in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban. It also offers further education and training.
"Independent schools can never cater for the masses. I believe this is the domain of government," Mr Zulberg says. "The poor are also entitled to an outstanding education."
Figures indicating independent schools’ comparatively better results than public schools should not be read in isolation, he says, since by far the greater majority of pupils write provincial examinations and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are also largely in the provincial pot.