‘National catastrophe” and “crisis” was how Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga described chunks of the country’s education system, which she says is characterised by “pockets of disasters”.
Motshekga read the riot act to her officials and teachers’ unions in a speech delivered during a three-day education lekgotla in Centurion this week, which was attended by education MECs and department heads.
In the speech, Motshekga called for:
• The immediate dismissal of underperforming principals and district directors, who should be made to face the consequences of their actions;
• Action against teachers in “former African schools” who, studies indicate, teach for only 3.5 hours a day, in comparison with the 6.5 hours taught by those in former Model C schools; and
• Thorough compliance with a Supreme Court of Appeal ruling that each child should receive his or her own textbook at the start of the academic year.
She railed against the existence of two education systems: one a “high-performance system with pockets of excellence, and the other a Cinderella system deprived of resources and characterised by pockets of disasters”.
“Today, I am calling for a paradigm shift. We must usher in a new era of doing efficiently all that needs to be done,” she said.
“When we ushered in the new South Africa in 1994, we vowed to create a single national education system that delivers quality education to all.”
‘Elephants in the room’
In her speech, Motshekga lambasted teachers who were “hardly found in class” as the “elephants in the room”. She cited a 2012 study of North West teachers’ classroom habits, which found that teachers taught only 40% of scheduled lessons.
She also cited a similar study by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2010, which found that almost 20% of teachers were absent on Mondays and Fridays.
“Teachers in former African schools teach an average of 3.5 hours a day compared with 6.5 hours a day for former Model C schools. This amounts to a difference of three years of schooling,” she said.
“Put differently, the majority of children in our system are expected to compete at the same level with privileged learners, despite the deficit of three years of schooling lost through nothing but sheer ineptitude.”
Other elephants in the room, she said, included provincial departments that did not “manage their provinces properly”, a lack of infrastructure, such as furniture and sanitation, poor teacher morale, unfilled critical vacancies, including principal posts, and a shortage of textbooks.
“We must consider the lack of sanitation in schools as an affront to our children’s inherent right to dignity. Let me be clear. Unless we can get the basics right, we can forget about improving the matric pass rate, let alone the issue of improving numeracy and literacy among our learners,” she said.
Regarding last month’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal, in a case that rights group Section27 won against the national and Limpopo departments, Motshekga said she had been advised that any appeal to the Constitutional Court “had no prospects of success”.
The court ruled that the department’s failure to deliver one textbook per child in Limpopo at the beginning of the school year was a violation of their rights.
“We have no choice but to comply. And, in all honesty, we should want to comply. We should be personally distressed that some of our children are not getting the education they deserve.”
Motshekga said the failure in matric of 213 570 pupils in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape was a “national catastrophe”.
“If one learner fails, that’s a challenge. If two fail, that’s a problem. But if 25% of a cohort fails, then we must have sleepless nights, as this is akin to a national crisis.”
She said underperforming principals and district officials should be “relieved of their duties with immediate effect” and officials should be made to face the consequences of their actions.
“If a principal presides over a school that achieves a 0% pass rate, something urgent must give. A similar fate must befall a district director who presides over a 20% district pass rate. However, in our current system, he could be promoted to the provincial education department head office as a specialist. What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“Simple: We allow mediocrity to spread like cancer to the highest echelons of the basic education system, thereby threatening the very foundation of the system.”
Basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said Motshekga had called the lekgotla to announce her intention to start doing things differently.
“We want to introduce quality and efficiency from the national level to the provinces, and down to every school. We need to go back to the basics. It was really important to start the year with a gathering of this nature.”
Basil Manuel, executive director of teachers’ union Naptosa, described Motshekga’s speech as “brutally honest”.
“It was important for the minister to come out like that because we have a tendency to cover up things. There was a need to be brutal ... Basically, the message was that things can’t remain the same,” he said.
Sadtu spokesperson Nomusa Cembi did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
A senior education executive from KwaZulu-Natal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many officials had “appreciated the speech, as it sounds like a radical departure from how things are done”.
“It looks like we have reached a turning point. To be honest with you, I have never heard an ANC minister talk so frankly about issues.”
KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni said she was inspired by the lekgotla. “It has enriched my knowledge of the education system. Now we will do our own assessment of our province. We will convene our own lekgotla to conduct a thorough assessment of where we are and how to move forward,” she said.