She's set on getting the basics right

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When President Jacob Zuma recently told school principals to interrogate why education policies have failed to deliver excellence, for one person in the room, the reality sank that the buck would stop with her and colleague Deputy Minister Enver Surty, to see that this state of affairs is turned around.

And transforming the country's education system - with its 12 million learners, 300 000 teachers and around 25000 schools - is going to be no mean feat.

Yet, as one speaks to a very well composed Minister of Basic Education, one gets the sense that Angie Motshekga has a certain kind of practicality and conviction that is required to transform a sector that has been plagued with challenges.

Having been a teacher, lecturer and Education MEC, and armed with a Masters Degree in Education, one can assume she has gone through the necessary baptism required for the post of basic education minister.

Added to this, she is credited for improving the matric pass rate in Gauteng, while education MEC, with the province's matric pass rate 13.5 percent higher than the national pass rate.

Perhaps, it's all of this, that lends to the practical, simple and uncomplicated approach she hopes to take into the job. "Getting the basics right," is what she calls it.
According to Minister Motshekga, these basics are all about creating the necessary environment and providing resources for teaching and learning, and ensuring that learners do learn.

She refers to her stint as education MEC, before stepping into her ministerial shoes as a "privilege" which has given her an insight into how the system works on the ground and what the frustrations are at provincial level.

"The biggest challenge, is to ensure that any policy passed at national level must be supported by an implementation plan at provincial level and that it is tightly supervised.

"This is one of the things I will be looking into; to ensure that the policies are supported by proper planning and that those proper plans are monitored on an ongoing basis," she says.

Being Minister of Basic Education over the last few months has "not necessarily been easy", despite being able to relate to the MECs she had worked with closely in her previous post.

In a country where in recent international tests for Grade 6 literacy, learners scored 302 (below the international average of 500) and in a mathematics test for Grade 8, South Africa came last, with a score of 244 (while the average was 467) - the minister's priorities are obvious.

Government has set a target of improving numeracy and literacy levels by 20 percent in the next five years. Motshekga responds to this enormous task by calling it "key among her KPAs."

"In my term, I want to ensure that the basics are implemented to the button. In the next five years, I also want to develop the capacity to be able to respond to challenges."

The minister explains that getting the basics right, means that timetables are worked out properly so that teachers are allocated properly. "Sometimes it is just the administration that hasn't been done properly."

She further says that in the past, the national department was forced to focus on mainly policy in order to ensure that the system had a very solid platform to move from. This created a vacuum in terms of the capacity to solve problems. "As yet, we are not geared to confront the problems. I want to focus on changing this around."

Her idea to improve education in rural areas is another example of her uncomplicated thinking.

"One of our approaches would be to consolidate farm and rural schools and build boarding schools, where possible, enriching educational tools where there is a need, and bussing.

"This will eliminate the long distances learners have to travel each day to get to school and assist towards ensuring that learners focus on learning."

Motshekga's approach to improving South Africa's schooling system includes using best-performing schools as models, and replicating their system to poor-performing schools.

In the past month, she has been working with both officials in the department and colleagues from provinces to develop different methods of working to ensure that the department indeed achieves better outcomes, and develops basic norms and standards for the sector.

She waxes lyrical about a poor community school in the Western Cape, for example, which makes good use of ICTs to ensure learners are kept abreast of technology. The school also enjoys the support of volunteers from the local community who help with lessons and maintaining the school building.

Another school from a poor community in Ivory Park, Gauteng, has also become a best-performing school, due to community support. This school has a 100% matric pass rate, and its principle devises means for student bursaries, meaning that the principle can account for each and every matriculant after they leave the school.

"Other schools are kept clean and make use of volunteers to help Grade 1s adapt to school procedures. These are all simple things that's not only based on dedication, but also good practise. If we can duplicate that, it would be great," she says.

In an effort to improve school accountability, the department is finalising the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu).

The minister allocated R6 million in her budget earlier this year to establish Needu ,which will evaluate all parts of the system, to unearth constraints and problems and provide advice for support and development.

However, the minister acknowledges that it is not only up to government to change the face of education in South Africa.

"Teachers and principals alike need to take responsibility, by getting the basics right, like ensuring they are in school, teach for seven hours every school day, are in class on time, teaching, without neglecting their duty and abusing learners.

"It will take a whole nation to fix our education system. Parents, learners themselves, communities and government have to work together to ensure we improve our education system. If we succeed in doing so, as a nation, we will have done ourselves a great favour."

And what does the minister, who herself has two family members in her home, currently in their matric year, have to say to the class of 2009?

"Study hard and put every effort into passing. It's an opportunity which won't come around again. Even if you repeat the year, you will miss out on all the excitement that comes with passing with your friends." And that's basic enough.