Destination Education (#1)

By Emma van der Vliet and Justine Joseph

Despite significant government spend, the education system in South Africa is failing our learners. Results are significantly weaker than those of learners in our poorer sub-Saharan neighbour, Zimbabwe, which seems baffling on the surface. But let’s try to make some sense of it. Let’s examine the trending areas of challenge and the potential changes that face developing countries… and parts of some developed ones too.



Despite high hopes for a “brave new world” of education in post-apartheid South Africa, our educational standards have deteriorated significantly. There are many complex and inter-related reasons for this decline. But the result is a sense of despondency and a lack of motivation among learners and educators alike.

Of all problems raised during interviews and in research papers, the poor quality of teaching, compounded by a lack of leadership in schools, is consistently cited as the most critical. That said, issues of poverty and lack of equity in education are major barriers to achieving better education quality and must be addressed nationally. But these conditions do not necessarily “cause” poor teaching. If we are to address the issue constructively, rather than sink further into collective despair, we have to prioritise the most critical problems and potential spaces for change. This in turn will help identify educational innovations that meet real needs and have real impact.


1. Early Childhood Development (ECD)

This is a hot topic in the education sector. The World Health Organization defines childhood as “the period from prenatal development to eight years of age,” saying that ECD, which includes “health, physical, social or emotional and language or cognitive domains,” can lay the foundation for a child’s future life.

According to the National Development Plan(NDP) 2030, developed by the National Planning Commission – a South African government initiative for developing a strategic, long-term vision and plan for the country – ECD has diverse benefits, such as:

  • Better school enrolment, retention and academic performance
  • Higher rates of high school completion
  • Lower levels of antisocial behaviour
  • Higher earnings
  • Better adult health

The problem is, children in lower-income communities have little to no ECD input. Money is tight, good nutrition is scarce, healthcare is lacking and parents are absent or working long hours. This means many children start school with up to a three-year developmental delay in terms of motor skills, language and more.

Health issues are also vital to ECD – as well as nutrition, which include deworming. The NDP says that stunting affects almost one in five South African children, while around 10% of them are underweight. Micronutrient deficiency is also noted as a significant problem. “About a third of very young children do not get enough food and nutrition, affecting their growth, health, cognitive development and full participation in society,” says the Plan.

Possible ECD innovation spaces

To begin with, the NPD suggests “broaden[ing] the definition of early childhood development, taking into account all the development needs of a child, [and using] the expanded definition as the basis for all strategies.”
Further intervention suggestions include:

  • Encouraging innovation in the way ECD services are delivered. Home and community-based interventions should be piloted in selected districts, using financing and collaboration with foreign donors and private sector funders
  • Investing in training ECD practitioners by upgrading their qualifications and developing clear career paths
  • Strengthening coordination between departments as well as the private and non-profit sectors. Focus should be on routine day-to-day coordination between units of departments that do similar work… rather than waiting for coordination at a management or director level
  • Providing government support for training, resource and other intermediary agencies, so they can support community-based programmes


2. Good schools in bad neighbourhoods

Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary on the American education system, suggests that, contrary to experts’ longstanding tendency to blame failing schools on failing neighbourhoods, they are “now starting to believe the opposite: that the problems of failing neighbourhoods might be blamed on failing schools”.

This is supported by a report by the Socio-Economic Policy Research Group at Stellenbosch University, which found that the “low quality of tuition offered in schools in poor communities can entrench exclusion and marginalisation,” miring people in a “poverty trap”.

Conversely, there are pockets of excellence and school successes in the most unpromising places, frequently lead by dedicated and enterprising principals who defy the odds. Journalist and filmmaker Molly Blank explored this phenomenon in Schools that Work, a series of short films about schools around South Africa that serve disadvantaged, low-resource communities but achieve academic success – such as a 90 to 100% matric pass rate, when the national average is 73% and many similarly disadvantaged schools get only 40%.

“I picked up the camera to show schools that are shifting the paradigm,” said Blank in a talk at TEDxJohannesburg in September 2013. “When I started this project I had a list of factors in mind: good teaching, continuous assessment, extra classes, and community engagement.”

Blank acknowledges that these elements are at all good schools, but a principal in Soweto told her, “there is no recipe for success. Sometimes it’s simple: good leaders who hold teachers accountable. And sometimes what’s revolutionary is obvious. One principal told me her school works because students are in class on time, teachers are in class on time and they teach. The question we should be asking ourselves is, ‘Why this isn’t the norm?’”

Another good-school factor noted by Blank is that often the principal teaches a class, meaning he or she is actively plugged into what happens in the classroom. One of those interviewed also “uses his students’ good results to show other teachers that there is hope.”

Hope is clearly important in neighbourhoods where hopelessness reigns. But the same can be said for whole countries. There are numerous poor countries where the quality of education is a great deal better than anyone would expect. But, sadly, in South Africa, the converse applies.

Despite the country’s relative wealth, it received the lowest scores out of 46 countries, including six African countries, in the 2002 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests. More recently, in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2006) at primary school level, South Africa came out last of 40 countries.

This is like finding a bad school in a relatively good neighbourhood – just on a larger and more worrying scale.


3. School leadership

When we asked Cameron Dugmore, former MEC for Education in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, what he felt was the most critical problem in education, he answered unequivocally that it was a lack of leadership and management skills in schools, and pointed to a recent national independent study in the UK, which came to the same conclusion.

It starts with the principal and how he or she leads the school, not just in terms of management and administration, but also in terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum.

“All the principals I met know what they’re lacking, but they say they do the best with what they have,” said Blank at TEDxJohannesburg. “This is what makes these schools work. Despite overwhelming challenges, these leaders are pushing forward. Some do it by empowering teachers to be agents of change in the school. Others create environments of love and discipline to make schools feel like home.”

Motivating this kind of leadership is imperative. But a maverick ethos or leader is not a sustainable solution for a school. There has to be a whole-school, or even a whole community approach.

Go here for → Destination Education (Part 2)

Inside | Emma van der Vliet and Justine Joseph

Emma van der Vliet

Dr Emma van der Vliet is a teacher, writer and former coordinator of the Center for Educational Innovations (CEI) hub in South Africa. She also has a Masters in creative writing, a PhD in Film and Media Studies, two published novels and some very lucky kids who get to call her Mom.


She’s a scientist by training, but editor of Inside|Out by profession. She has a Bachelor of Science (Medical) Honours from the University of Cape Town and 10 years experience as a health and science journalist. She was a Mondi Magazine Award finalist and the international winner of the 2006 Novo Nordisk Media Prize for Excellence in Diabetes Writing. In 2011 she co-authored The Story of the Fly and How it Could Save the World with enviro-entrepreneur Jason Drew. She’s contributed to various publications including Shape, Men’s Health, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Oprah Magazine, Discovery and Hip2B2.



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