Somdaka Vuyiswa is a literacy mentor associated with the reading-for-enjoyment campaign, Nal’ibali. When allowed, she visits schools in her area to help with reading. Foundation Phase literacy development is a major weakness in the South African education system.
Part Three


Who should we call to account for our poor learning outcomes?


espite the fact that many South African children cannot understand what they read and battle with basic numeracy, they continue to progress through the school system. The teachers we interviewed all felt under tremendous pressure from education authorities to maintain good pass rates – even if that means nudging ill-prepared children through to higher grades.

Bongani*, the principal of a technical high school in the Eastern Cape, conceded: “That’s what we do – we send them through. We call them ‘progressed learners’, which is when a learner is promoted to the next grade even if they are not performing.”

Jillian* from Pietermaritzburg agrees that there is huge pressure to progress learners into the next grade even though they’re not ready. “Every year we bring in kids from outlying schools who are not as advanced as the children in our school – and we find that they are struggling, yet they come through to us with these glowing reports from other schools. We, as teachers, can say to a parent, ‘your child is failing’, but they have to agree to let you repeat the child. Nine times out of 10 they don’t want the child to repeat – either because they don’t want to pay school fees again or because of the stigma attached to repeating a grade. They think they are helping their children, but the child inevitably ends up failing in the next phase.”

About a third of children will have to repeat a grade at some stage of their schooling42, and the current policy is that learners can only be retained once in each school phase. At the moment, the Department of Education is considering scrapping grade repetition for learners between the ages of six and 10, which they believe is doing more damage than good43.
The odds indeed seem to be stacked against South Africa’s children, only half44 of whom will eventually leave the education system with the minimum qualification (the National Senior Certificate, or matric).

“School dropout is not, as many assume, an instantaneous decision or the result of a single event,” explains Chiara Baumann, who heads up the Zero School Dropout Initiative45. “It is the result of a long process of disengagement; the culmination of a number of negative factors, such as little or no adult support, lagging behind academically, toxic school culture and so forth – it’s the moment when all these things that weigh a learner down finally forces them to sink.”

Are parents to blame?

Teachers think that parents need to shoulder some of the responsibility for South Africa’s poor learning outcomes. Over her 20-year career, Michelle* a teacher at a small town former Model C school in the Eastern Cape, has found that “the role of the parents seems to have diminished in children’s lives – and teachers have become far more important. She says: “A lot of parents come from very impoverished communities, and work, so they are not able to be involved. A lot of them live far away from the school and the children bus in, so it is actually very difficult for the parents to be involved. Also, there is not a culture of involvement in the schools; there is definitely a lack of confidence on the part of parents who feel they should leave all matters up to the teachers. Sometimes it feels as if we are being left to bring up the kids.”

Bongani* expresses similar sentiments. “In this rural area, there is no parental involvement,” he says. “We try to involve the parents but they won’t come. They have this misconception that education starts at school. Even if you ask them to come to school they say, ‘No, we are busy. Please do the work you are supposed to do’.”

“These learners cannot learn”

Sometimes teachers blame the learners themselves for poor learning outcomes. Both the Public Schools Partnerships pilot project46, and the Zero School Dropout Initiative47 report encountering teachers who put the fault on learners for not performing better in the classroom. As one of the teachers expressed to us: “Our teachers struggle to get the learners to read. On the whole, they are lazy and hate reading, and they hate comprehending.”

The Public Schools Partnership pilot project, now in its third year of implementation, found that when provided with high-quality resources, learners from marginalised communities can make astonishing jumps, despite low expectations from their teachers. For example, in one of the schools they worked in, the proportion of Grade 3s who passed Maths increased by over 50 percentage points in just one year.

Taking advantage of a system under pressure

There are situations where teachers are clearly to blame, which is when the management structures responsible for dealing with these individuals (or groups of teachers) appear to be falling short. In an opinion article published by the Daily Maverick in early 201848, Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, made the following comments about a dysfunctional school in the Western Cape: “At any given time at least one-third of classrooms are without teachers. While learner attendance is high, teacher absenteeism, often for extended periods, is rife. Teachers know how to play the system: one managed to stay away for 18 months in a three-year cycle without adverse consequences.

“Teachers refused to take any work home – including exam preparation and marking – all of which were done during teaching time (to the extent that they were done at all). Unsurprisingly, hardly any of the year’s syllabus was covered, in any grade, a problem compounded year on year. The most shocking conclusion to emerge, at this school, is that learners in Grade 7 (who are in their eighth year of formal schooling) are still reading at the level expected of learners at the end of Grade R.”

Reporting on a large research project undertaken in 2015/16 under the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development49, Prof. van der Berg and other researchers confirmed that the issues outraging Zille at this particular school are indeed robbing many more South African children of their potential. They found that the shortfall in schools’ effectiveness mostly involves weak teacher content knowledge, poor teaching skills, low time-on-task (apparently only half of the scheduled classes actually take place), and little work in class or homework, translating into wasted learning time and insufficient opportunities to learn.

“At any given time at least one-third of classrooms are without teachers. While learner attendance is high, teacher absenteeism, often for extended periods, is rife. Teachers know how to play the system: one managed to stay away for 18 months in a three-year cycle without adverse consequences.”

Despite the fact that many South African children cannot understand what they read and battle with basic numeracy, they continue to progress through the school system. Everyone interviewed felt under tremendous pressure from education authorities to maintain good pass rates – even if that means nudging ill-prepared children through to higher grades.

Prof. Heystek from the North West University says from their qualitative research they are, however, starting to see positive shifts in teacher attitudes: “Although there are still many complaints about teachers, I have found in my research and through experience that a large percentage of teachers are really dedicated to their work – and that culture is growing among educators. I do not have actual figures, but more and more teachers want to make a difference. Attitudes among teachers are changing.”

The potential of these attitude shifts should not be underestimated. There are schools that are managing to improve their learning outcomes year on year, despite functioning under the same challenging conditions as many other schools that are floundering.

Gwebityala Senior Secondary School, a Quintile 150 school in Elliotdale, in the rural Eastern Cape (featured on page 38-45), provides a good example51. School principal, Nohlobo Mjali-Matyholo, attributes their progress firmly to the dedication of the school’s teachers, although she herself must be praised for her commitment to learners, and for implementing approaches that keep teachers and learners motivated and the community involved. The fact that teachers have agency, which has a strong and immediate impact on the life potential of learners, does not mean, however, there is not more work to be done to create an enabling environment.

The buck stops where?

Both Professors Heystek and Volmink are adamant that instilling a culture of professionalism is vital if we are to improve outcomes in our schools. So what does a profess-ional culture in schools look like? “It’s about pitching up. It’s about staying in class. And it’s about having the ability to care,” says Prof. Volmink.

For Prof. Heystek: “It relates to the neatness of the school, the behaviour of principals and the punctuality of teachers. It all boils down to a change in attitude and complete professionalism in the sector.”

And where are our management structures to enable such a culture of professionalism currently in short supply?

Quince, the strategic human resources consultant for the Public Schools Partnerships pilot project, says that government schools do not have the authority to employ or sack staff unless the teacher was hired by the School Governing Body. Since such School Governing Body posts are especially rare at under-resourced schools, hiring and firing must go through the provincial Department of Education.

“In most workplaces, there is someone with the authority to hire and fire. That makes them ultimately accountable. At schools, authority sits with the principal – but only up to a point.

“They are expected to carry the entire disciplinary load themselves; they can go up to a final warning with someone – and then it is taken out of the school, to the Department,” she explains. While in some instances getting the Department involved may protect teachers from unfair dismissal, this approach to discipline also hampers schools that want to deal with chronic underperformers,” Quince adds.

One of the most common refrains among those who assess the education sector is that teacher unions actively protect even the rotten apples in the profession. Mxolisi Mlawu is a former office-bearer for SADTU, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, and he insists SADTU has been unfairly painted as shielding its rogue members.

“Let me stress that SADTU is a union that was set up to deal with bread-and-butter issues for its members.” He goes on to explain that SADTU doesn’t condone misconduct among teachers, but adds: “It is not the responsibility of SADTU to institute sanctions – we are not the employer of the teachers. We do not have any programmes to discipline them.”

Quince says there’s an easy way to tell the difference between a school that’s performing and one that isn’t: look at its leadership. By that, she means the principal, deputy principal and subject heads. Initially most of the partner schools participating in the Public Schools Partnerships pilot programme, did not have an organogram and the lines of authority and accountability were ill-defined. “Mostly, principals ended up with the entire school reporting to them – rather than, for instance, Maths teachers reporting first to the head of the subject,” she explains.

A recently published book based on a study exploring how policy and institutional challenges within the education sector play out in different provinces52, found that introducing effective performance management into South Africa’s education system is largely hampered by political and institutional factors.

Expectedly, it was found that a well-functioning bureaucracy is very important, and in the two provinces studied, the Western Cape did better than the Eastern Cape at bureaucratic tasks like “managing resources, assigning personnel to where they are most needed, monitoring and managing on the basis of performance”. That said, another major finding was that a well-functioning bureaucracy does not necessarily guarantee good educational outcomes. The top-down management system of the Western Cape, for example, leaves ample opportunity for mismanagement at local levels.

It looks like horizontal governance approaches in schools might help to mitigate the weaknesses of top-down management strategies. For example, in the Eastern Cape it was found that proactive engagement by School Governing Bodies and parents helped sustain and turn around performance at some schools.


  1. Grant, L. & Otter, A. 2018. Twelve years in South African schools
  2. Magubane, T. 2018. No repeat for pupils under 10. The Mercury, 18 May 2018. Access here
  3. Spaull, N. 2015. Schooling in South Africa: How Low-quality Education Becomes a Poverty Trap. South African Child Gauge 2015. Access here
  4. The Zero Dropout Schools initiative aims to halve the rate of school dropout by 2030. Read more here
  5. The Public Schools Partnership pilot project is testing an approach to give children in the poorest and worst performing schools equal opportunities to those in the best public schools by bringing non-profit management and teaching expertise into public schools. Read more about the Public Schools Partnerships pilot project and what they are learning here
  6. Read more about the Zero-Dropout Schools Initiative here
  7. Helen Zille. 2018. From the Inside: Our ‘industrial relations’ regime in schools plays Russian Roulette with kids’ future. The Daily Maverick, 15 January 2018. Access here
  1. Van der Berg, S., Spaull, N., Wills, G, Gustafsson, M. & Kotzé, J. 2016. Identifying binding constraints in education. A study financed by PSPPD (Project to support Pro-Poor Policy Development). Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP), University of Stellenbosch. Access here
  2. South African schools are divided into quintiles based on the socioeconomic profile of the community in which they are located. Quintile 1 schools are located in the poorest communities, while Quintile 5 schools are in the wealthiest. Funding allocations differ across quintiles, and learners in Quintiles 1-3 do not have to pay any school fees.
  3. Also see the ‘Schools that work’ video series that profiles 19 schools across South Africa that are achieving academic success while serving some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. Access here
  4. Levy, B (ed.), Cameron, R (ed.), Hoadley, U (ed.) & Naidoo, V (ed.). 2018. The politics and Governance of Basic Education. A tale of two South African provinces. Oxford University Press: United Kingdom. Access here


If you do not create change, change will create you.