Barrier to Learning

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Challenges facing education in South Africa
outh Africa has a high-cost, low-performance education system that does not compare favourably with education systems in other African countries, or in similar developing economies. There is a multitude of well-publicised problems, including a shortage of teachers, underqualified teachers and poor teacher performance. In the classroom, this results in poor learner standards and results, a lack of classroom discipline and is exacerbated by insufficient resources and inadequate infrastructure. On a government level, difficulties have been caused by a failure of appropriate inspection and monitoring, and confusion caused by changing curricula without proper communication and training. All this has lead to massive demoralisation and disillusionment among teachers and a negative and worsening perception of the teaching profession.

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Recently appointed director of the Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD) and former director and acting chief director for the National Department of Education Management and Governance, Martin Prew, does not beat about the bush when reviewing the challenges of the new departments of education. “We have to go back to basics,” he insists. “Getting the teachers in to teach and the learners back to learn. We would do well to take a leaf out of Zimbabwe’s book. They followed much the same political trajectory as we did – experiencing the same kind of boycotts and association of the education system with the former regime.” Zimbabwe’s post-independence government immediately prioritised education, Prew explains. “They wisely took the strong system already in place and built on it, introducing gradual changes over the years,” he says.

“A total review of the current Schools Act is a priority” “Education was regarded as one of the most important aspects of national regeneration and progress. The cry was to strengthen existing schools, build new ones, and appoint competent teachers regardless of their former or current allegiances. Government motivated and inspired teachers by engaging teachers’ unions, focusing on the role of principals as critical managers, and made teachers and principals feel they were a crucial component in the building of the nation.” The initial curriculum and syllabi were maintained. “Instead of following the tabula rasa route adopted by South Africa, Zimbabwe gradually introduced a new curriculum over a period of about 10 years during the 80s. This created continuity and stability for teachers and pupils alike. Small but substantial changes were made to the various syllabi without dumping the curriculum, which of course is the whole school experience. “The syllabus refers to the content matter of a particular subject. It appears that there was confusion in South Africa about what a curriculum was as opposed to a syllabi. Rather than talking about improving the various syllabus we kept talking about changing the curriculum. The result was that the whole system was turned upside down too soon and in the process we lost much of what was effective in the old system,” says Prew. might well be changed yet again. We need to realise that education reforms need to get bedded down: each reform needs at least 10 years of implementing before one can determine if they have worked or not. Among the repercussions, according to Prew, was the feeling created among teachers that everything they had done was irrelevant. “They had confidence in their ability but their professionalism was pummelled out of them. Then, with the closure of teacher training colleges, the low levels of commitment to teacher training provided at universities and the low levels of funding, the status of the profession sank even further. Now of course, with constant media reports about incompetence, unethical behaviour, failure to attend classes, shocking results and below-standard qualifications, the negative perception has been exacerbated.” He believes a total...
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