Speech by minister Debbie Schafer, Western Cape Minister of Education:
Thank you for the opportunity to address this House on Minister Motshekga’s 2015/ 2016 Basic Education Budget Vote Speech. For the purposes of this debate I shall confine myself largely to Basic Education.
Chairperson, Minister Motshekga announced in her speech in the National Assembly at the beginning of the month, the measures that her Department is taking to improve quality and efficiency in education throughout the country, with a renewed emphasis on curriculum coverage, improving assessment and strengthening quality, efficiency and accountability in our schools, districts and provinces.
All these are admirable goals, in fact they are essential, and the Minister is to be commended for acknowledging that these need to be improved, and starting to take steps in that direction.
A quality education is essential for every child to give them the best possible opportunities in life.
And by quality we must mean the best possible education for the individual learner, taking into account their abilities and circumstances.
Last year I highlighted the gaps in the Minister’s budget speech on the importance of increased access to special needs education and technical skills development in schools and I am pleased to see that the Minister has placed more emphasis on addressing these issues this year.
The Western Cape already leads the country in the provision of special needs education both for high needs learners in special schools and increasingly for low and moderate support needs learners in our inclusive ordinary schools. We plan to increase access in the coming years.
We also support, in principle, the new three streamed approach of academic, vocational and technical curricula.
The educational needs of our children are diverse. Not everyone can or wishes to follow a purely academic education, and it is long overdue that alternative pathways are offered.
Given that, combined with the persistent high dropout rates, we therefore support in principle the development of a new exit level certificate.
However, the Minister’s announcement on this lacked detail and gave the impression that it is a desperate attempt to come up with a “quick-fix” solution for the learners who are being pushed up from grade to grade without even passing very often, as a result of the so-called Progression Policy. I say “so-called”, as it seems laughable to refer to “progress” in any sense when one is speaking of learners who have not met the already very low criteria, and yet are put through to a higher grade with which they are unable to cope.
We look forward to receiving more information on the proposed skills and vocational pathway programme and the implementation thereof, bearing in mind the impact of changes in the curriculum, and the costs of training and employing suitable educators in the current economic climate.
Ultimately, the only way we are going to improve education in South Africa is by ensuring increased levels of accountability throughout the system, coupled with incentives. If there are no incentives for those who perform well, and no accountability for those who do not, there really is no reason for people to improve performance – that is human nature, for better or worse.
So it is a welcome development that the Minister has just announced the development of Standards of Principalship to guide principals as to what is expected of them. It is unfortunate that we need that, as good principals should already know what is expected of them, but it unfortunately represents the state our education system is in.
Principals are the leaders in our schools, and they set the tone as to whether the school will be a well-performing or under-performing one.
Other than this, however, the Minister has announced very little in the way of measures to strengthen accountability and efficiency.
Last year in the Western Cape we instituted competency assessments for the appointment of principals, which were used by almost all, if not all, schools appointing new principals. The response has been very positive, with a number of principals requesting more such assessments in order to improve their skills. This year we are rolling them out for Deputy Principal and HOD appointments. It is a concern that we remain the only province to do this, however, especially given the importance placed on it in the NDP.
Of course, equally important are our teachers. Competent, committed educators are essential for our children to receive a quality education, and teacher training is probably the most significant thing we can do in South Africa to improve our education system. We are pleased that the DBE will be working with the Department of Higher Education and Training to better influence the quality of our teachers in critical subjects such as maths, science and technology.
However, we should be concerned about the quality of teaching in ALL subjects. Minister, I have recently discovered that teacher training is receiving the least funding in our universities. Considering the priority that education is in our country, I would imagine the Minister may wish to take this up with Min Ndzimande.
But improved training must be accompanied by improved accountability.
Incentives and accountability are what drive change in human behaviour.
Good teachers should be rewarded when they perform well, whilst teachers who do not perform well should not.
Where is the incentive to do well if everyone is paid the same and there are no consequences for failing to attend school on time or at all, well prepared or not at all prepared, or for doing extra murals or not, as the case may be?
I see nothing from Minister Motshekga to address that issue.
Chairperson, last year the Minister received the report of the NSC Task Team. One recommendation was that the curriculum should not be changed in the foreseeable future, as there have been too many curriculum changes and they have negatively affected our learners, teachers and their results. And yet in her budget speech this year she announced a new Ministerial Task Team to conduct research into doing exactly that – by investigating how to make History a compulsory subject for all learners in Grade 10 to 12.
What exactly is the reason for this, other than to appease alliance partners before the 2016 local government elections? History is compulsory until Grade 9. If there are things that are deemed appropriate – and for the right reasons – that are not currently included in the curriculum, then surely they can be incorporated into that syllabus? We trust that the financial implications of changing textbooks – which will cost millions – and employing and training additional teachers, will also be considered by the Task Team and the Minister. But the crucial point is that learners will be severely limited in their choice of subjects. They already have to take two languages, mathematics or maths literacy and Life Orientation. This leaves 3 subjects that they can choose, and which affect their choices when and if they wish to study further. If History is now also compulsory, they will have a choice of only two.
This cannot be in the interests of quality education.
Another attempt to limit choice in our education system is the single textbook per subject, about which we remain concerned. It is becoming more apparent that the catalogue which we were told would remain and from which we could choose, will only contain one book per subject. The stated intention of cost savings is noble in principle, but in practice is not good for quality education.
If the national government spent more effort on dealing with corruption and maladministration in other departments, there would be more than enough money to purchase quality textbooks without limiting the choice of teachers and learners, and endangering the publishing industry.
I have raised with the Minister and Deputy Minister, the ongoing concerns of the publishing industry. The impact was brought home to me in a recent meeting with publishers, when it was explained that a small publisher is developing a maths book for Grade 10. If it does not make the catalogue there will be little incentive for them to develop a Grade 11 one. I do not have to explain the potential dangers that lie in minimising the amount of available material.
Finally, on quality, the NSC Task Team also strongly recommended that matric markers should be required to demonstrate their competence prior to being appointed, citing subject matter competency tests.
Not a single word has been said about this crucial aspect by the Minister, and the DA-led Western Cape Government remains the only province to conduct testing of this nature.
So we can talk about quality and accountability, but when we look at what is actually done, we are a long way off making a meaningful difference in our education system at a national level. We need real incentives and real accountability to improve the system and until that is implemented, we will remain far down the world education rankings, which is certainly not a situation we should be happy with.