What’s Wrong With South African Schools?

South Africa has done all kinds of good in trying to turn itself around since the end of apartheid. New investment, new homes, new laws, and a new middle class are just some of its successes. But if a country wants to achieve sustainable development–economic, social, or human–it must see improvements in education.

This is the first in a series of posts here at gautango in which I will try and answer the following important question: What are the challenges facing South African education and are they being met in the schools?


In one indisputable sense, education for black Africans (87% of the population of SA) has improved since 1994. Beginning in 1953, when the apartheid government passed the Bantu Education Act, South African schools were segregated by race. The black schools were systematically under-funded, under-resourced, and geared toward turning out students who could be “carriers of water and hewers of wood.” The end of that era was a boon for all learners.

Yet increased funding and opening the door for black Africans to participate in the dialogue around education has not solved many critical educational problems. In one very public example, a series of systemic studies funded by the Department of Education (see here) that looked into what was really going on inside of South African classrooms scandalized the nation. Crunching vast amounts of data collected during each of the three phases of education, these studies revealed that despite spending 6% of the GDP on education (the highest amount of any government spending category), learners are failing in droves.

So what exactly is the problem?

Issue number one in South African education is language. The ability to read English, which is South Africa’s primary language of education and trade, is crucial for success at school (and beyond). Every single school subject employs a learner’s ability to read. Yet in my experience working at two private schools in Soweto (learners pay roughly $200 per annum to attend) I have discovered that learners are not being prepared to succeed in reading. The average Grade 2 learner cannot name the letters or their sounds, and most of the Grade 3 learners cannot read English at a Grade 1 level.

There are 11 official languages in this country: nine African languages, English, and Afrikaans. Not a single one of the students I work with speaks English as their home language. Obviously, this creates a problem. Learners’ first year of school is supposed to be taught in their home language, but in a place like Soweto, where members of every regional ethnic and linguistic group can be found, it is virtually impossible to achieve this tricky task. Most of the township schools cannot afford readers for the children, let alone the salaries of teachers who could specialize in each of the various tongues.

Surely, the effect of this language barrier is to put non-English-speaking learners at a huge disadvantage, but perhaps more importantly, it devalues the importance of reading and literacy in the learners’ early years. The DOE study supports this first point. It concludes that learners who are instructed in the same language that they use at home scored on average 37% better on standardized tests than those who are instructed in a second or third language. This is a huge margin.

The second point, that the language barrier actually devalues the importance of reading and literacy in the learners’ early years, is less objectively obvious. Because the learners are taught in home language during their first year, and it is expected that they will be taught in English the following years, little progress is made in learning how to read in their home language. Why spend the time teaching a child to read isiZulu when he will be asked to read English in a matter of months? There are a number of other factors that add to the difficulty of creating a solid literacy foundation in Grade 1, including limited written materials or literacy curriculum in the African languages, low expectations surrounding home language literacy, and Grade 1 classes that are in fact quite linguistically mixed.

When a learner reaches Grade 2 unable to name letters or sounds in any language it becomes a race against time. Because learning to read is difficult for a child, reading habits form very early. If a child does not expect reading to be a part of his or her schooling in the early years, it is difficult to change that expectation. Also, children’s books are written to the level of life experience of their target audience. An alphabet book, written for the attention span and interests of a 5 year old, is not going to compel a Grade 3 learner. Programs in adult literacy often run into this same problem.

An additional but equally important element of the language barrier is that children are learning to speak English at the same time they are learning to read. If you have ever tried learning a foreign language, you know how hard it is to make sense of new words. Imagine trying to make sense of sounds and words at the same time. A learner could read the word “mug,” sounding out the /m/ /u/ /g/, without any idea what the word actually means. The moment when reading a word “clicks” and the sounds transform into something the learner already understands is not so easily come by in this situation.

All of these problems are palpable in the classrooms where I’m working and they make the teachers’ job (themselves not native English-speakers) incredibly difficult. Their solution? Consciously or not, teachers have devalued the importance of reading and literacy in the curriculum. Each class spends about 2 hours per week on literacy, does virtually no homework in the subject, is unfamiliar with the inside of the library (though there’s not much to see there anyway), and rarely reads anything with the children or encourages them to do so either. On balance, a more successful school that I visited spends at least an hour per day doing reading and literacy work, assigns homework each night, visits the library weekly, and reads together often.

There are other problems with education in South Africa, but the language barrier is absolutely critical to understanding why so many students are failing in school. While it is economically and logistically impossible to ensure that every learner is taught in his home language, it is possible to do a better job of prioritizing reading in the early years than schools are currently doing. This would make a huge impact on learners as they proceed to higher and higher levels of expectation.

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22 responses to “What’s Wrong With South African Schools?

  1. A movement is needed to have the storytellers of old become readers of stories in the communities to bring books to the neighborhoods in all the languages so the children learn to enjoy being read to in their own language as well as english before they ever get in school. Refocused preschool education, television and Sesame Street did that here and made a tremendous difference in the material we start with in Kindergarten. Today the 5 year olds are reading and writing where children were reading and writing in second grade when I first started teaching thirty years ago. Now, not all of them are mature enough for what is expected of them but it is amazing how many are. I am hoping we get a chance to build up your libraries Bob. Keep the faith if you teach they will learn.

  2. This may sound cheesy, but that thanks for such a thoughtful and articulate treatment of the issues. It helps me get a better grasp of the situation in which you are trying to work. Much love, Lauren P

  3. hey u guys s*** d*** so leave us alone

  4. the problem should be addresd from the core

    • Mr. Mokoena, it’s true what you say and I would like to know what the “core” is that you are refering to? Do you think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed from the leaders/elders in the communities? How can we work together? This is really a issue that can change the whole of South Africa for the better.

  5. Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way, this has now completely changed my perspective on this issue. It’s not a case of the children having no potential to perform, it’s a case that they actually have no access to perform. It’s crazy to think that a school must be able to cater for multi-cultural (different languages) first graders. No wonder our education standard is low. This phase is so important. My home language is Afrikaans, imagine I had to have my first year in school in Setswana. It would have put me back for the rest of my life! It’s crazy. We need to talk about this, how can we help these little ones?

  6. what you sad is tue and most teachers are blind to notice it

  7. The teachers are not the blind ones. Teachers are powerless at this stage. We need the government to make the change. Either we need to make a one language for all learning policy or we simply need more teachers who are proficient in other languages to be trained. Teachers know what the problem is and there have been numerous complaints about it but without a policy change we will get no where.

  8. The ideal solution would be to instruct learners in their home languages with English as a first additional language at least until grade 3 or 4. However with 11 official languages how likely is it that this will ever be possible? Even if schools had these kind of resources, I think the manpower needed to effectively achieve this would be logistically impossible. The next best solution is to have instruction in English from the earliest age possible so that learners are able to communicate in English before they have to begin reading and writing. We have to face the fact that English is the global language, and if we want to be able to compete in the global workplace then we owe it to our children to provide them with the tools to succeed

    • It is Iimpossible to have all eleven official languages. However in my experience most African families want their children to go to English schools, they say English will get them far. Moreover In my experience I have been told that they prefer white English teachers. English is an international language, it is not a South African language, Afrikaans and African languages are. Children are suffering, they are being labelled as stupid but the bottom line is that they simply don’t understand the language. They must start there education in English, the foundations are paramount or the wheels will certainly fall. Experience does not lie.

  9. Thanks a
    Ot for the info

  10. Teach children in the language they are confident in, that is; the language they use to communicate in in their lives. english can be taught as an additional language. If Afrikans speaking children can afford to to learn in their mother-tounge throughout their educational lives, wht’s stoping a zulu speaking child froma doin the same. Policy makers need to be pressurised to review the teaching language policy.

  11. Pingback: Empowering our future leaders. - Ms Sanction

  12. Our school is keeping us in during lunch breaks

  13. As a grade 3 teacher and Jolly Phonics Trainer, I feel that as teachers, we are being let down by ‘educational bureaucrats and fat cats’ who don’t give a damn about the child who has to learn THREE languages ( two of which is NOT even his/her home language. I feel, that we need to go down to basics. Teach the children the sounds in their own HOME LANGUGE FIRST, how to blend so that it reaches the point of automaticity, before introducing a second language. In fact, why not give the CHILD the choice of the second language in Grade 7. In this way, you would have had a child tested thoroughly in his/her home language BEFORE introducing a second or third language.

  14. Hi to all, has anybody heard about SmartBrain and the wonderful success they are having with teaching children from a very young age to read.
    The only problem is they need more aid with funding to be able to get it out to more and more pre-schools. If anyone can help them why don’t you contact them on 021 945 3623 and speak to Brand or Marilyn.

  15. I have been teaching for almost 30 years and have been teaching grade 1 for the last 17 years. Some of the comments made are not quite correct so I would like to give my opinion as I have experienced teaching children whose home language differs from the language of teaching
    1. In South Africa the parents choose the language of teaching. At my school half of our learners do not attend the school on their doorstep which will provide them with education in their home language. So we cannot always blame the education department.
    2. Children in township schools receive education in their mother tongue up to grade 3 (not in gr 2 like mentioned above)
    3. I think teachers need to take some of the blame: I had to start teaching Afrikaans reading this year which is a 3rd language for my learners. I do not have books, so we made our own, first concentrating on the vocabulary (with pictures) and then slowly working towards reading and speaking. Teachers must stop expecting the government to give them everything. There are plenty of resources in shops that can be used to compile your own readers. Township schools receive a lot of money from government and they have no excuse for not being innovative and creative to overcome challenges. It all comes down to how dedicated and passionate you are.
    4. So, having said all this, here is my view of education in SA and why our children are failing. For me it all comes down to numbers!!! Our classes are too big. You can teach in a second language with greater success if the teacher learner ratio is smaller. But government is overcrowding our classes and then demand results without understanding the difficulty to teach eg. reading to 45 children in a language other than their mother tongue. If our classes were smaller, we can do more individual work and help children who are struggling.
    Lastly I just want to add that parents are not doing enough to prepare their children for school. Love for reading comes from the example set at home. Parents are not telling their children stories, so the love of reading is not encouraged. If parents expose their children to English before they come to grade 1, our level of education will improve. Parents also can’t seem to understand that a language cannot be taught at school and then not practiced at home. 7 Hours per week is allocated to a language, and it is not sufficient for children receiving education in a language other than their home language. I always ask my parents to let one parent only speak English to a child and the other parent continue speaking in their home language.
    If grade 1 learners do not know their phonics (alphabet) by the end of grade 1, then the problem lies with the teacher,and not the government or education system. Phonics do not differ so much from one language to another language.

  16. As a teacher in training my self from the psychology background I must say partly what has been said here is true but yet again the education system of our country is deteriorating by the day due too so many changes in the policy documents, the demands placed on teachers by the education department, lack of motivation from our learners due to little discipline measures and the fact that they know that whether they study hard on not they will still be moved to the next grade as now they can not be made to repeat the same class twice and when they eventually get to matric LOL they can pass with as little as 35%

    • I totally agree with your views. In addition to that, the matric results have been decreasing for the past years because if we really look at the stats of how many matrics passed with 50%, Im sure will have an interesting pass rate. The 35%p.r is totally misleading and Zuma administration has just worsened our education system period…

  17. stop going against the report and listen to what its saying, he didnt say anything about your school so chill hes saying things in general like he rural schools with teachers who dont pitch up he means things like that .

  18. Thank you so much for the article. I am a student teacher and reading this article made me aware of the huge crisis South Africa is facing and I can relate to all issues outlined in the article being a product of rural public schools.

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