In the coming month, all across South Africa, over half a million students will be sitting down to take the National Senior Certificate exam. Some will be sitting at individual desks in state-of-the-art classrooms. But others will be sitting on cinder blocks and at shared desks in buildings that lack water, electricity, and toilets. Wherever they are, students will be taking the same high-stakes test, one that will determine their future. Students who pass will graduate from high school and gain access to higher education opportunities. Students who fail will not. The exam has a broader purpose, as well: the South African government uses pass rates to identify public schools that lag behind national performance standards. Institutions at which less than 60% of students pass the exam are designated “underperforming.” Underperformance trends in the South African school system reveal startling inequalities and show that the Department of Basic Education’s own underperformance in addressing this critical issue is inexcusable.
Following last year’s exam, 1,407 schools across South Africa qualified as underperforming. The poorest performing provinces were the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, which had pass rates 15%-20% lower than those in the majority of other provinces. Nearly half of the schools in the Eastern Cape failed to meet national performance standards. Shortcomings such as poor infrastructure, inadequate materials, overcrowding, and negligent management all suppress success in vulnerable schools. Not coincidentally, underperformance in the education system disproportionately affects learners in the poor, rural, historically black areas of the country.
Indeed, many of today’s challenges troublingly echo conditions of twenty-five years ago, when the legal framework for education existed to perpetuate racially separate and unequal education. Under the apartheid education system, black schools were designed to underperform in comparison to their white counterparts in order to keep black South Africans undereducated and capable of performing only unskilled, low-wage jobs. The measurable effects of this policy were severe: the government spent 10 times more on white schools than it did on black schools; while there were 18 white students per teacher, the ratio in black schools was 39 to 1; the standardized exam passage rate for blacks was less than one-half that of whites. It is shocking how little these figures have changed since the end of apartheid. In a visit to the Eastern Cape in 2013, community-based education NGOs found primary school classrooms with over 50 students and secondary school classes with over 100 students. Some schools have no electricity and lack desks, chairs, textbooks, and library facilities.
The persistent, systemic deficiency in school performance requires a coherent, national policy solution. But, rather than designing a coordinated response, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has largely overlooked underperformance as a problem in and of itself. National guidelines on improving school performance do not exist. At a more basic level, it is unclear that the DBE even fully appreciates the gravity of underperformance since it has failed to comply with monitoring, evaluation and remediation requirements outlined in the governing national legislation, the South African Schools Act (SASA). A recent example of the DBE’s inadequate approach is evident in the comparison of its 2013-2014 yearly action plan with its 2013-2014 year-end review. “Underperforming schools” appeared only twice in the action plan. The year-end review made only general references to underperforming schools, showing little follow-up on the action plan and providing almost no guidance for reform.
Luckily, groups like Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Center (EELC) have turned their attention to the cause and have committed their considerable social resources to drawing others’ attention, as well. In a far-reaching approach, EE and EELC have undertaken a variety of advocacy strategies in Parliament, the court system, communities, and schools. EE has organized policymaker visits to underperforming schools. In 2012, in response to students’ call for help, EE launched litigation to compel authorities to address the dire learning conditions at Moshesh Senior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape. Recently, EE and EELC produced a shadow report for the parliamentary oversight committee on education, pushing the government to hold the DBE accountable for its shortcomings. All of these steps are important in forcing the DBE to acknowledge the problem and meet its obligations, such as those enumerated in the SASA. Only by living up to its own standards can the DBE help schools live up to theirs.
Elizabeth Loftus, JD ‘16, is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic currently working on education-related issues in South Africa, in partnership with EELC. She has previously worked on projects related to South Africa as a member of the Harvard Law and International Development Society.