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Study touts leadership as answer to SA’s education ills
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 09/07/2020

With South Africa's economic inequality and basic education system among the worst in the world, a study by a Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences lecturer shows how school leadership can play a crucial role in improving the academic performance of learners.

The recent study entitled A System Perspective of Basic Education in South Africa, is the work of Dr Lieschen Venter of the Department of Logistics.

The waning quality of South Africa's basic education system, especially for learners interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), has been well documented.

According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, fifteen-year-olds in South Africa score second to last behind only Ghana in numeracy and literacy achievement when compared to learners from 76 countries. The World Economic Forum also ranked South Africa last in the quality of mathematics and science education.

South Africa also has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world, with the lowest three quintiles of South African households earning below R2 340 and falling under the 2018 living monthly wage level of R6 460.

Yet, there is a minority of learners (roughly 25%) attending functional schools who attain good test results. However, the majority of learners (roughly 75%) attend dysfunctional schools and deliver poor test results.

This economic inequality creates the impression that the allocation of more funds can solve the low academic performance. But this approach has not yielded much fruit in recent years, says Venter.

“Over the last five years, for instance, an average of about 20% of the national budget was allocated to education. Of this, approximately R20 000 is spent per child on primary education. In contrast, the Kenyan government spends approximately R4 000 per child and achieves better results than South Africa. Despite the substantial increase in resources invested in the historically disadvantaged school system there has not been an improvement in education quality."

She said the problem is systemic and complex with no simple cause and effect relationship.

“In order to effect real change, all forms of school leadership must be considered. School leadership includes any agent that is able to draft, enforce, and enact policies for education reform. These include local and national government officials, principals, governing bodies, community leaders, and parent bodies."

As such, her study proposes the use of a series of system dynamics simulation models to identify how different management interventions on communities, teachers, resources, and learners can reduce inequality and restore the education system as a whole

The models compare the systems of the Western Cape Province's lower socio-economic community to the higher socio-economic community. It is constructed in such a way that it may be used for other communities with other characteristics, or any other province.

The system dynamics simulation models are as follows:

  •  The School Efficiency Model (SEM) simulates the South African basic education system and demonstrates that improvement interventions are needed early, continuously and on various factors to be effective. In traditional thinking, solution approaches tend to be once off, aimed at a single factor, and often too late. The SEM illustrates that any intervention, from any one of the actors within the school system must exhibit the characteristics of being early, continuous, and in multiple areas. The SEM serves as a proof of concept for the necessity of systems thinking when intervening within a basic education system.

  • The Teacher Efficiency Model (TEM) simulates the career progression of teachers in the Western Cape and shows that the number of teachers employed in a primary school has a greater impact on their effectiveness than the quality of the teachers appointed. Practically this implies that funds should be directed towards making the profession more attractive to prospective students and increasing salaries. A large bursary resource drives high enrolment teaching qualifications, but care must be taken to increase the graduation rate which is extremely low. In extreme cases a prospective teacher could earn more on a bursary than a junior teacher could earn on a salary, for less labour.

  • The model for Early Childhood Development (ECD) simulates the preschool career of children in the Western Cape. This shows that improving the quality of the programmes has a greater impact on school readiness than increasing the number of children enrolled in programmes. Programmes are structured within ECD facilities to provide learning and support appropriate for a child's development age and stage. The lack of consideration of the quality of these programmes, and especially of informal programmes, causes the only outcome to simply be increased enrolments without increasing cognitive development and school readiness. A quality programme is one where children learn the correct skill at the correct time, in the correct way, so that an increase in quality has a positive effect on aptitude. The greatest gain in cognitive ability comes from participation in programmes for two years or more at a minimum of fifteen hours per week (preferably at thirty hours per week) where children are enrolled before the age of four.

  • The Primary School Model simulates the progress of learners from Grade 1 to Grade 7 in the Western Cape and shows that improving learners' social circumstances has a greater impact on their academic performance than improving their classroom experience. Interventions should focus on decreasing the unemployment rate of parents, and increasing access to social and psychological support for families. This stands in stark contrast to the current solution of simply allocating an ever growing portion of the national budget towards procuring resources for struggling schools.

  • The Extended School Efficiency Model brings together all the models to demonstrate that a combination of interventions is needed to reduce the academic achievement gap between poorer and wealthier communities in the Western Cape. These interventions make sense within the Western Cape context as the Western Cape Department of Education has been diligently improving the school system through wise policy setting and competent implementation. Decreasing community poverty and intervening socially within the home is, understandably, a much harder intervention for a government to execute. A combination of interventions should be delivered closest to the desired results.

Venter said future work to broaden the model insights would include comparing the performance of the lower social economic system within the Western Cape with that of, for example, the Limpopo province.

  • Photo (supplied): Dr Lieschen Venter