South Africa's education system has come under scrutiny over the years with some analysts questioning whether its early childhood education programmes meets the educational needs of all children and whether the school system is capable of producing students who can cope with tertiary studies.
But with the Department of Basic Education finalising a comprehensive turnaround plan for teaching in schools called: Action Plan 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025, there is a ray of hope that South Africa's education system will be transformed and receive the holistic approach it required writes Gabi Khumalo.
Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, and several other ministers, recently pledged to ensure South Africa's children get only the best education at school - one of government's top priorities.
Along with the Ministries of Home Affairs; Communications; Health; Public Service and Administration; Science and Technology and Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities; Motshekga co-signed a Delivery Agreement for Outcome 1. Its objective is to improve the quality of basic education. It's the first of the 12 Outcomes approved by Cabinet earlier this year to improve performance and service delivery.
The agreement is based on four outputs including improving the quality of teaching and learning; undertaking regular assessments to track progress; improving early childhood development and ensuring a credible, outcomes focused planning and accountability system. The four outputs are followed by eight sub-outputs, which relate to the 27 goals of the Action Plan to 2014.
The sub-outputs include improving teacher capacity and practice; increasing access to high quality learning materials; establishing a world class system of standardised national assessments; extracting key lessons from ongoing participation in international assessments; universal access to Grade R; improving the quality of early childhood development; strengthening school management and promoting functional schools as well as strengthening the capacity of district offices.
Motshekga said the delivery agreement was a negotiated charter reflecting the commitment of the key partners involved in the direct delivery process, adding that it was a milestone in improving the schooling system of the country.
"Our children and young people need to be better prepared by their schools to read, write, think critically and solve numerical problems. These skills are the foundations on which further studies, job satisfaction, productivity and meaningful citizenship are based," she said.
Outlining each output, the department's Director-General, Bobby Soobrayan said improving the quality of teaching and learning is informed by the pressing need to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
He said the national Systematic Evaluation programme and the Grade 12 examinations have demonstrated that learner performance is well below what one would expect given the resources available to the schooling system.
The 2009 Teacher Development Summit acknowledged the gravity of the problem and served as an important catalyst for taking teacher in-service training in South Africa to new levels.
Currently, policies are being finalised that will see the department developing new training packages through distance education and e-Education, and the development of relevant training programmes by universities and private training providers.
"National standardised workbooks of a high quality are to be introduced in all public schools for all learners in Grades R to 9. These workbooks represent a cost effective means of ensuring that minimum standards with respect to depth of learning and scope of subject content are communicated to teachers and learners and are upheld," Soobrayan explained.
In addition, clearer guidelines on which currently available textbooks are suitable in particular contexts will be released soon by the national department in an attempt to improve the provincial and school selection processes.
Following the introduction of universal and standardised testing in Grades 1 and 6 in 2008, Grade 9 learners will also participate in the Annual National Assessments as from 2011.
The assessments will become a cornerstone of quality improvements in South Africa's schools, providing important information to teachers, parents, district officials and the country as a whole.
"Targets based on performance in assessments have already been set at the national and provincial levels. Moreover, targets based on performance within international testing programme have been determined."
Soobrayan noted that although Grade R will be universal by 2014, the task of improving the quality of Grade R and Early Childhood Development (ECD) generally is a task that will extend beyond 2014.
In the coming years, there will be a stronger focus on consolidating the quality of Grade 1 and ECD, following the enrolment successes of the last few years.
The department is currently distributing resource packs to all schools with Grade R, which contain teaching and learning materials specifically for Grade 1 use.
On the outcome: Ensure a credible, outcomes- focused planning and accountability system, Soobrayan said it emphasises the need to make schooling more accountable.
He stressed the importance of knowing where under performance occurs and the underlying reasons so that the department can intervene on time.
"The logic is that neither poor performance nor outstanding performance should go unnoticed. Effective teaching and learning requires a school that is functional, a school where people's rights and responsibilities are clear, the leadership of the school principal is respected and the school is valued by the community," he said, stressing the need to focus on school management and strengthening of school functionality.
Time management is among the required improvements and a new national monitoring system is expected to equip district offices with new tools that will be used when visiting schools to assess programme completion in both quantitative and qualitative terms.
The district assessments will lead to both provincial and national reports tracking progress against key indicators.
The department also acknowledged the problem of over sized classes and admitted that the issue has not received enough attention in the past.
"Over sized classes have been found to be a result of teaching posts not being filled; insufficient classrooms, but also to a large degree poor management of the time of teachers.
"Incentives for teachers to work in rural areas, a policy which has existed since 2007, will be used to greater degree than before, moreover, the system whereby teaching posts are distributed to schools has been redesigned to deal more directly with the reduction of over sized classes."
Further Education Training Director in Gauteng, Don Haripersad, commended the department for coming up with a clear plan.
"They must do things different and productively like building professional competitiveness, provinces to ensure that the School Governing Bodies are functional, look at successful institutions as well as developing schools' cultural songs," said Haripersad.
University of Pretoria academic, Dr Muavia Gallie, described the agreement as ambitious.
Gallie advised the department to look at having a system where they will be able to check how many teachers they have in the system.
"We need intellectual systems that will keep everything together, we should be able to know how many teachers are present in the system today and have a potential to have a system where you'll be able to access every education information."