A panel discussion on “The practice of improvement: Getting from here to there" was one of the highlights of the annual Quantitative Applications in Education Research conference hosted by ReSEP, a research group on Social Economic Policy situated within the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University (SU), on 28 and 29 September.
The panellists – Prof Jonathan Jansen, Prof Brahm Fleisch, Prof Peliwe Lolwana and Dr Itumeleng Molale – discussed the South African education system in terms of what went right, what went wrong and what could be improved.
Although there were some positive improvements since 1994 – more schools were built and every child in South Africa now has access to education – the speakers could each identify an area where further improvement is possible.
Prof Fleisch, an associate professor from the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the School of Education at Wits, feels that a greater focus could have been placed on instructional practice while Prof Lolwana, former CEO of Umalusi, cautioned that the system has allowed the gap between the haves and the have-nots to grow.
“Poor children, even though they have access to schools, still don't know how to use education effectively to access opportunities," she added.
Dr Molale, former head of the Department of Education and Sport Development in the North West Province, believes that dismantling teacher education (teacher colleges) without a proper alternative was a big mistake, and Prof Jansen, previous Rector of the University of the Free State, thinks that enormous damage was caused by the implementation of outcomes-based education.
Prof Fleisch echoed this sentiment: “We made a big blunder with our curriculum reform. We should have focused explicitly on the early grades and gotten that right first."
The Chair of the session, Dr Nic Spaull, referred to Prof Servaas van der Berg's presentation earlier during the conference titled “How we've progressed" where he emphasised the improvements in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) between 2003 and 2015, and also the large increase in black matriculants receiving high-level passes in mathematics and science.
Dr Spaull then asked the panellists to give possible reasons for the improvement in learning outcomes between 2002 and 2015. Some of the reasons given by the speakers were the stabilisation of the education system after 1994 and an improvement in teacher knowledge.
However, Prof Jansen was not impressed with the figures presented to him.
“We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. In SA, we're always catching up. That is why Brahm is right. Our big mistake was to focus on the wrong end of the system. If you don't get the foundation right, you will continue to play catch up."
Prof Fleisch said that they were all in the business of improving SA's education system.
“How do we get where we want to go," he asked. "We've done a lot of things based on wishful thinking rather than evidence. Let's stop that. Let's stop wasting money on things that don't work. Let's start looking at things that do work and concentrate our resources there because that's the only way we are going to move forward. Wishing – because it seems so important – is not enough."
For Prof Jansen, this means building the foundations of the school system with two interventions: the national programme in literacy and national programme in numeracy.
The conference drew 110 participants from a range of backgrounds including education researchers, policy-makers and PhD students.
During a video address, Minister of Basic Education Mrs Angie Motshekga expressed her support for the ongoing research conducted within the ReSEP group: “I want to acknowledge the invaluable role played by the Research on Socio-Economic Policy team in producing such rigorous research and the important links they maintain with the Department of Basic Education (DBE). We hope that this partnership continues in years to come, and is also extended to previously disadvantaged universities in order to increase the production of high quality, policy relevant research within the sector."
The two international keynote speakers were David Evans from the World Bank who spoke on “Getting the most out of our teachers: Lessons from recent quantitative research" and Yuri Belfali from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) who spoke on “International assessment for excellence and equity: Experiences from PISA for Development". Both were well received by the audience eliciting a number of questions about the role of international assessments in education policy making and the politics of teacher reform in developing countries.
Finally, on the last day there were two parallel sessions where PhD students presented their PhD proposals and ongoing research, getting feedback from the participants.