Poor quality education in South Africa

Written by Natacha Daniel

“South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world. Children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in mathematics than children in the next 6,600 schools combined. The playing field must be levelled,” said Sheila Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.

South Africa, a diverse and promising country, is at a crossroads in its educational environment. Despite progress towards educational equality and accessibility, a dark cloud looms over the nation’s schools: a problem of inadequate educational quality. In this article, we will look at three crucial aspects of the South African education system that contribute to poor teaching and learning: poor time management, insufficient attention to text, and shockingly low levels of teacher subject knowledge. This article uncovers a harsh reality: South African teachers and schools lag well behind their notably poorer regional neigbours. 

Education in South Africa

According to The Economist’s 2017 League Table of Education Systems, South Africa ranks 75th out of 76 countries. According to the most recent figures, 27% of pupils who have completed six years of schooling are unable to read.

Only 37% of children who enter school pass their matriculation test, and only 4% go on to complete postsecondary education and receive a degree (The Economist, 2017). According to the Department of Higher Education and Training, 2.8 million residents between the ages of 18 and

24 are unemployed, not enrolled in an educational institution, and are not getting training (Gater & Isaacs, 2012). 

South Africa, according to the Centre for Education Policy Development (2017), has a high-cost, low-performance education system that fails to contrast favourably with education systems in other developing nations. As a considerable proportion of students reside in rural regions with inadequate conditions, both students and the government incur significant financial burdens (ExpatCapeTown.com, 2016). Local governments are seeking to balance the scales. According to UNICEF (2017), South Africa spends a greater proportion of its GDP1 on education than any other African country. Nonetheless, no meaningful improvement in the country’s education difficulties can be seen. According to Govender (2017), 18 South African schools had 0% success rates in the 2016 national senior certificate examinations.

The HIV AIDS Impact on Education

Although HIV Aids has had a world known impact in many countries, great emphasis is placed here in South Africa. Notably South Africa’s education system has had first-hand experience of the detrimental effects of HIV, through the reduction of able, qualified teachers and its continued disruption on the education of many young pupil’s lives. It goes without saying that without continued support and assistance from actors South Africa will see a further delay in its social and economic development. Key issues to be identified is as follows:  

The HIV/AIDS epidemic specifically in South Africa continues to harm educational development; and there is a decline in the supply of educational services due to teacher fatalities and absenteeism. 

Significant medical along with additional costs are being imposed on the educational system for medical care and death benefits for infected teachers, in addition to recruiting and training replacements for teachers lost to AIDS, according to studies in many countries, including Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The number of school-aged children is decreasing because of HIV Aids. Children who are born with the virus seldom survive long enough to attend school. Orphaned children are frequently neglected and are less likely to attend school than non-orphaned youngsters (cited in Constitution of South Africa, no date). 

The consequences of HIV/AIDS have an adverse effect on the quality of education.  Infected teachers are frequently absent or too unwell to deliver adequate teaching. Substitute educators could fail to possess the necessary expertise or credentials to replace certified teachers. Hence why it is unwise for the government to continue treating HIV/AIDS as a non-serious issue and divert its funding in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a result the quality of education is declining notoriously especially towards government schools (Statistics South Africa, no date). 

According to the Medical Research Council, there was an immediate increase of HIV Aids between 1993 and 2000. One potential explanation is that people were distracted by the political turmoil.  HIV Aids was spreading as the South African people and the world’s media concentrated on the country’s political and socio-economic upheavals. Although the outcomes of these political reforms were favourable, the pandemic did not receive the attention it required. It is feasible that a quick response will limit the impact of the outbreak. According to the president of the Medical Research Council, AIDS killed around 336,000 South Africans between the mid2000s and the mid-2006s (Avert, no date). 

Apartheid’s Impact on Education in South Africa

During the apartheid, spanning from 1948 to 1994, and arguably persisting in nuanced forms today, the South African government enforced a discriminatory system that continues to cast a long shadow over the country’s education system. The impact of apartheid on education, particularly for black pupils, has been profound and enduring. Scholars contend that while overt segregation policies may have formally ended, the remnants of this system persist in more subtle, systemic inequalities. This lingering influence raises questions about the true extent of transformation in South Africa’s educational landscape. This section of the study discusses the major characteristics of apartheid’s influence on South African education.

Education Under Apartheid

The educational landscape in South Africa was marred by racial segregation during the apartheid era. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 entrenched a system of stark inequality for Black South Africans. In contrast to their White peers, Black students were subjected to an inferior education, characterised by meagre resources and underqualified instructors.

Apartheid systematically limited access to quality education for non-White South Africans. Black students oftentimes were taught in their native languages, and the curriculum aimed at channelling them into low-wage occupations, thereby perpetuating socioeconomic disparities.

These disparities created a stark contrast between White and Black schools. While White schools enjoyed increased government spending, improved infrastructure, and well-qualified teachers, whilst on the other hand Black schools suffered from overpopulation, insufficient resources, and deteriorating infrastructure. This inequality prompted significant resistance, with students, teachers, and community leaders staging protests, notably during the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

The enduring effects of apartheid on education are still evident today, as educational disparities persist. The government is actively addressing these historical injustices by striving to provide more equitable educational opportunities for all South Africans. Apartheid’s lingering effects may still be seen in modern South Africa, presenting a complicated legacy in the field of education. Permeating educational disparities exist, posing a problem that the government is working to address to rectify past injustices and provide more egalitarian opportunities for all.

The dedication to building a more equitable education system demonstrates a determined attempt to address apartheid’s lingering impacts, recognising the necessity for comprehensive and long-term approaches that transcend historical inequalities. As South Africa continues its path towards educational equity, the determination to remove gaps remains a critical component of the country’s commitment to a more inclusive and just future. 

Policy recommendations

Among the intricate tapestry of difficulties plaguing South Africa’s education system, it is imperative to recognise that an exhaustive and nuanced strategy is required for effective reform. This strategic approach demands a thorough analysis of certain aspects, such as skill development, to identify specific areas of intervention. The next policy suggestions, for example, will examine the national skills development strategy controlled by SETA (sector education and training authority). These proposals aim to effect significant improvements by taking a focused position on recognised challenges, building an inclusive and efficient educational landscape that overcomes past imbalances in South Africa’s learning institutions.

Enhancing Skills Development Strategy for Improved Education:

In the pursuit of elevating the national skills development strategy, particularly the industrial training program currently under the oversight of SETA (Sector Education and Training Authority), the aim is to optimise its efficacy. The primary goal is to foster a heightened level of competitiveness within the business sector and enhance the overall efficiency of the state. Regrettably, the current performance of SETAs falls short of the government’s articulated mission, prompting imminent reforms in the coming year or two. The recommended reforms are poised to rejuvenate and align the skills development strategy with the nation’s objectives for a more robust and competitive educational landscape.

Quality Improvement and Development Strategy in South Africa:

South Africa’s pursuit of an impartial and high-quality education system demands an aggressive strategy centred on continuous improvement and development (Department of Basic Education, 2021). Multiple groups and organisations contribute to this effort, displaying a deliberate effort to minimise educational challenges. The Department of Basic Education’s Curriculum Evaluation Policy Statements (CAPS) provide a comprehensive framework for curriculum creation and evaluation.

In addition, efforts like those made by the South African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE) actively contribute to improving the quality of education (SAIDE, 2021). SAIDE’s emphasis on new distant education approaches corresponds with the larger objective of improving educational accessibility and inclusion. Adherence to international standards is a vital component of this strategy. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) aligns educational degrees with worldwide benchmarks, increasing global competitiveness and the legitimacy of South Africa’s education system (SAQA, 2021).

In a ground-breaking move, the government is set to allocate a substantial R12.5 billion investment over the next five years to spearhead a transformative education program aimed at redressing the enduring impact of apartheid on the educational landscape.

The initiative involves the identification of five thousand underperforming schools situated in remote areas, serving as a direct response to the legacy of apartheid. Substantial resources, including libraries, laboratories, and teaching materials, will be allocated to these schools. Additionally, educators will benefit from targeted support through education development programs and dedicated development teams, as outlined by Hoogeveen and OzIer (2004).

The pedagogical approach within these schools will prioritise the acquisition of vital content and academic skills, with a keen focus on imparting crucial literacy and numeracy skills to learners. Importantly, the progress of both learners and their respective schools will undergo regular monitoring and assessment, reflecting a commitment to ensuring sustained improvement and accountability in tackling the prevailing challenges in South Africa’s education system.

In a significant development, government funding for the Higher Education (HE) system in South Africa has witnessed a remarkable doubling since 1996. The restructuring of these institutions is strategically aligned to enhance the country’s capacity to educate and train a workforce characterised by both skills’ excellence and global competitiveness, meeting internationally accepted standards of quality. The paramount focus is on expanding access to the education system.

The South African Qualifications Authority is mandated with the mission “to ensure the development and implementation of a national qualifications framework.” This framework plays a pivotal role in fostering the comprehensive development of each learner and contributing to the social and economic advancement of the nation. The framework operates as a set of principles and guidelines facilitating the registration of learner achievements, promoting national recognition of acquired skills and knowledge, and encouraging a seamless, lifelong learning system.

Outlined in the South African Qualifications Authority Act (No. 58 of 1995), the objectives of the National Qualifications Framework encompass the creation of an integrated national framework for learning achievements, facilitating access to and mobility within education, training, and career paths, enhancing the overall quality of education and training, accelerating redress for past unfair discrimination, and contributing to the holistic personal development of each learner and the broader socio-economic development of the nation.

To reach these objectives, the South African Qualifications Authority commits to establishing a national learners’ records database, overseeing the quality assurance process, and developing a regulatory framework for the standard-setting process. Aligned with the strategic plan for Higher Education, there is an envisioned increase in enrolment from 15% to 20% of school leavers within 15 years. Notably, the plan outlines a shift in enrolment patterns within five years, with declines in humanities and rises in Business and Commerce, as well as Science, Engineering, and Technology.

Closing remarks 

Ultimately, South Africa’s effort to confront the fundamental educational difficulties formed by its historical context, particularly the persisting effect of apartheid, demonstrates a commitment to transformative reform. The strategic goals and policies addressed here are part of a larger effort to create a more inclusive, equitable, and high-quality education system. South Africa’s commitment to accessible, high-quality education for all remains steadfast as it navigates the complexity of this educational landscape.

While obstacles remain, the coordinated investments and reforms demonstrate a resilience that reflects the country’s commitment to developing an informed, competent, and internationally competitive population. South Africa’s education system is a dynamic environment that represents a continuing conversation between past injustices and the aim of a future in which every learner can prosper regardless of their colour or native language.

As the country develops in its own way, it is critical to constantly analyse and adjust policies, drawing inspiration from successful tactics, promoting cooperation, and ensuring that the educational journey corresponds with the changing demands of South Africa’s varied and dynamic community. The goal of this collaborative initiative is to pave the way for a future in which education serves as a beacon of empowerment, breaking down barriers and unlocking the full potential of every student.


Cover Image by Trevor Samson / World Bank via Flickr

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