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An open letter to the Department of Basic Education

15 June 2012 Gareth Stokes
Gareth Stokes, FAnews Online Editor

Gareth Stokes, FAnews Online Editor

Early in January 2012 Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, took to the podium to announce a 70.2% pass rate for learners sitting their 2011 National Senior Certificate. Unfortunately no amount of celebration and self-congratulation can hide the s

There are two underlying trends that make a mockery of the Minister’s celebration. The first is the dwindling number of students that reach their matriculation year, and the second, the continued erosion of the value in this qualification. In a concerted effort to appease their political masters our educators have reduced pass marks, lowered examination standards, awarded bonus marks for certain candidates and introduced watered-down subjects such as Mathematics Literacy and Life Orientation.

A sad state of affairs

Professor Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, is passionate about education. And he is scathing about the quality of education currently extended to young minds across the country. As a guest speaker at The Insurance Conference 2012, Jansen observed: “South Africa has set such low expectations for itself and for its young people that the kinds of problems that you see today are inevitable: We see kids, with first degrees, who cannot read, write, calculate or argue in the public sphere!”

Is there a practical solution to South Africa’s education challenge?

Jansen lamented the continued decline in the number of learners both entering their final year (Grade 12) and sitting the National Senior Certificate. “Not only do we have fewer students writing the examination, but we have very few qualifying to enter the university system,” he said. He also echoed our doubts over the worth of the exam pass rate statistic bandied about by the education department. “You cannot celebrate with the Minister when she shows you a percentage that hides the reality – it means nothing – especially when the highest marks achieved by learners are in a dummy subject called Life Orientation [with a 99.9% pass rate],” he fumed.

What is to be done? How do we “fix” our education system? I have the beginnings of a plan that could revolutionise education in South Africa. It is a draft solution, briefly set out, and will naturally require refinement. But I hope that by proposing it somebody at the Department of Basic Education will pick up on the idea and set an education revolution in motion.

My plan begins by addressing what I believe to be the most serious challenge in the current education environment, namely the quality of teaching. If we want our learners to perform to the best of their abilities they should have access to skilled teachers regardless of which province they are in, or which school they attend. An excellent educator is the differentiator that allows learners at a school in the poorest part of the country to produce results equivalent to those at the wealthiest. But South Africa does not have enough skilled teachers, particularly in subjects such as mathematics and science, to fill posts at each and every institution.

A paradigm shift in teaching methodologies

The challenge becomes how to ensure that every learner receives a similar chance at success in the absence of qualified teaching resources. I think the starting point is that the subjects and curricula for each subject be set at a national level. Each student writing Mathematics, for example, will complete the same subject matter regardless of where they attend school. I believe this solution can be implemented without dismantling the existing provincial structures… Resources in the provinces could be freed up to tackle more important tasks including managing and monitoring assets (schools).

The plan requires a change in the presentation of subject matter at the country’s schools. What I envisage is a model where the teacher’s time is freed up to ensure that the material is understood and that the stragglers in a particular class receive additional assistance. It is time for education to move into the digital age! My suggestion is that each and every lesson in the mathematics (for example) curriculum be filmed and distributed to teachers countrywide. The teacher would begin each year with a stockpile of DVDs comprising the entire syllabus in dozens of 15 to 30 minute lessons. Each 45-minute class would be built around the recorded lesson and it would be up to the teacher to decide whether to play the entire lesson before having an interactive class discussion, or play sections of the recorded lesson interspersed with practical examples. What are the benefits of this dual teacher / recorded lesson teaching method?

1. The education outcome is presented clearly and consistently to every pupil in the class, and in the country.

2. The system protects learners from teachers who are not up to speed with certain sections of the curriculum.

3. In the event a teacher is not up to speed with certain sectors of the curriculum, the recorded lesson serves to enhance the teacher’s knowledge too.

4. In the event a teacher is absent a leader in the class would be able to preside over the video lesson.

5. The teacher is freed up to spend more time observing the learners during the lesson.

6. The teacher is freed up to spend more time marking assignments and giving feedback on learners’ work rather than working on lesson plans after hours; and

7. The model lends itself to a future Internet-based implementation (my dream solution) wherein each and every learner has access to the entire syllabus through Wi-Fi enabled tablets!

Finding ways to make it happen

This is a costly solution – but one easily within reach in a country that commits billions of rand to education each year. For my plan to work there will have to be a television and DVD machine in every classroom in South Africa. Is it a dream too far? I do not think so. Government should be able to use its massive buying power to negotiate a reasonable deal. The plan also requires adequate classroom infrastructure (including electricity and toilets with running water) at each of and every school. It makes sense in this regard for government to contract a private sector partner to provide mobile / temporary classrooms to ensure accommodation for learners while permanent structures are planned and built.

Over time the centralised development and deployment of subject and subject curricula could be integrated into a countrywide inter-school network (over the Internet) to ensure equal access to all students at the lowest possible cost. I believe that there is enough talent in the national education sphere to implement such a solution… If every stakeholder in the education sector works together the future of our schooling system will know no boundaries.

Jansen is upbeat too: “I believe that with the right teaching, the correct support and the motivation required, all our young people, black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban, can do better. It is up to us to take up the struggle against low academic expectations!”

Editor’s thoughts: If you want to tackle inefficiencies in a system you need to identify and eradicate areas of duplication and constriction. In a country where the quality of education is frequently criticised it makes sense to centralise subject and subject curricula to create a consistent product for each and every learner. How would you go about revamping our education system? Please add your comment below, or send it to


Added by Bidnis Man, 19 Jun 2012
I don't think cd's and video's will help. Don't underestimate the arrogance of the average child in any classroom. If a teacher stands in front them and reads from notes they say to themselves on a subconscious level "Before me stands a so called teacher who tells me I need to learn something. However, he does not know it himself as he reads it from his notes. I may be young but I am no fool - if the teacher has never seen fit to learn it then what they teach is obviously of no use to me." The situation is worse if a cd is just handed out. This lack of awareness of what goes on in a child's mind is a bigger cause of poor education than bad teachers, bad departments, blah blah blah.
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Added by Bidnis Man, 19 Jun 2012
Another point: I think the concept that the solution to society's issues, economic or otherwise, has something to do with Maths and Science marks is something that needs to go the way of the Dinosaur, three wheeled milk delivery vans and white's only beaches. I do not dispute that science and maths are useful in the so called formal sector, however, to the 60% of employable South Africans who have no REALISTIC chance of working in the formal economy I think that the unspoken educational premise that the goal is to 'try to groom them to one day be a CEO' as just as realistic as training everyone to be an astronaught, an Olympic sprinter or an award winning brain surgeon. Although I don't pretend to know the real answer, I do consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Life Orientation has a better mark not ONLY because it is easier than Maths/Science but ALSO because it teaches students something that is genuinely useful to them in their current circumstances.
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Added by Bidnis Man, 19 Jun 2012
Edit: change the word 'employable' to 'unemployable' in my second post.
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