Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has been accused of attempting to dilute the autonomy of a research unit that was set up to independently evaluate schools.
The National Education Evaluation and Development Unit was formed by Motshekga, after she became minister in 2009, to analyse the state of schools, particularly the status of teaching and learning.
It has released two revealing reports – for 2012 and 2013 – but the 2014 report on the quality of high school education has not yet been released.
The Democratic Alliance raised the red flag after it came into possession of an email from acting chief executive Sibusiso Sithole to the unit’s staff dated September 1.
Following a meeting with the minister, Sithole outlines directives and said that the minister had some concerns about how the unit had operated in the past.
She wanted it to be “closer” to the department. “She said: ‘Keep it independent, but keep it closer.’”
The minister also said that the unit needed to work with the Planning, Development and Oversight Unit.
In addition, the email states that: “Because the minister had emphasised that actions to address National Education Evaluation and Development Unit findings must start immediately, we will suspend all school and district visits in mid-September to start planning for new work.”
The DA’s Gavin Davis said that the unit was established to “scrutinise our education system without fear or favour”, and its website spelled out that it acted independently “of the civil service responsible for the administration of schools”.
“It has been apparent for some time that the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit is too independent for Minister Motshekga’s liking. Indeed, she shelved a bill gazetted on December 23 2011 that contained a number of measures to safeguard the unit’s independence,” alleged Davis.
The email explained in part why the 2014 report had not yet been published, he claimed.
“Indeed, it seems that Dr Sithole – in connivance with Minister Motshekga – is in the process of delaying and sanitising the 2014 report.”
While the 2014 report is still pending, a report on barriers to learning for special needs children is to be expected to reach Motshekga only in May 2018, the minister said in a recent written parliamentary reply.
Contacted by cellphone on Tuesday, the unit’s former chief executive Nick Taylor also expressed concerns that the work of the unit was stagnating.
Taylor submitted the 2014 report in mid-2015, when his contract came to an end.
“I handed it in, then it seems to have disappeared,” he said, adding that it was due to go to the department for comment before being released.
He had been responsible for the 2012 and 2013 reports. The first was released within six months after being published, the second faced some delays.
Some findings, particularly on reading in the early school years, were implemented.
“I am worried about the sluggishness and independence of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit. The minister has also changed the trajectory. It was supposed to be a statutory body, now it is becoming just another government department.
“It is supposed to operate outside the department. It should not be buried in a department, to be run by a bureaucrat. Reports can be sent to the department for comment. But the unit must have the right to publish what it thinks is right.”
Comments from the minister and Sithole were not forthcoming at the time of going to press.