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Address the National Consultative Conference in Education, 31 May 2005, Minister Naledi Pandor speeches


Address by the Minister of Education, Mrs Naledi Pandor, MP, at the National Consultative Conference in Education, ICC Durban

31 May 2005

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Our thanks must go to you all for accepting our invitation to come together and discuss in a concentrated fashion our progress in education and the further steps that we should take to build on our achievements, to act on the inadequacies, and to devise new and as yet unexplored approaches to existing and emerging challenges.

Many of you present here today took part last year in the CEDP policy review conference on education since 1994.

All the papers presented at the conference expressed the view that much has been done to move education beyond the apartheid design. They also shared a perspective that stresses progress recorded while also calling for a significant acceleration of government, private and civil society action to throw off decisively the imprint of the past in education policy and practice.

One of the outstanding features of the conference was the attempt to grapple with the complexity that is education in any society, to expose current practice to “hard edge” scrutiny, and to begin the difficult process of mapping out future action in a context that builds on our democratic achievements while also alerting us all to the need to go beyond today to formulate education responses that will firmly locate South Africa within the rubric of a “vibrant learning nation”.

Many of us were not at that conference of 2004, but we gather here today to strengthen the potential for action that was signified at that event.

This conference will support the process of developing a new consensus in education. Through the papers and your deliberations you will assist in the building of a deeper understanding of education policy and practice.

Debate and consensus is required on a range of matters.
First, what relationship should exist between education and training and the economy of South Africa? Is the shape of the economy an irrelevance or a factor to which we must attend? In what way should information about our economy be considered?

Second, what role, if any, should education have in promoting social cohesion, in shaping a post transition South Africa, in giving life to the Constitution’s call for a South Africa “united in diversity”.

Third, given the strong call for human capital approaches to education and training, how should the sector respond - particularly given our strong commitment to intellectual development that is firmly buttressed by the values of social justice and human dignity? How should education at all points act to ensure that it adequately reflects these important mandates?

Fourth, given the scale of “inherited inadequacies”, have our current policy responses, institutional types, administrative arrangements, and levels of investment, adequately provided for the wide-ranging character of challenges.
A decade ago we built a consensus on the path we should pursue. We talked, drafted, prepared, and planned. In ten years all the essential legislation was in place and we were ready to move.
Those processes have supported our present successes. We have widened access to schools, and we have increased access to higher education.

Fifth, given the objectives and priorities elaborated in South Africa’s ten-year review, are we in education and training vigorously contributing to reducing the exclusion of the majority from the opportunities that could be opened up by focused attention to training for economic success and participation.

Sixth, through the leadership of President Mbeki, South Africa has played a leading role in the articulation and consolidation of an African agenda. The role of South Africa is recognized on the continent and worldwide. Is education actively engaged in pursuing and shaping the African agenda and in giving life to the intellectual and other resources that will support it?

Seventh, is the education and training sector at all levels organized co-operatively, structured to promote quality, mobility, articulation and necessary action on national priorities?

Eighth, our country has set itself up as a leading voice for the promotion and achievement of a progressive left-oriented development agenda - from the anti-war movement to giving a human face to globalisation, and from promoting democracy worldwide to resisting the imposition of monolithic unilateral political ethos on world and local organizations. What leadership can education give in these matters – in curricula in all sectors, in institutional relationships, and through sectoral organizations.

These are some of the matters we may focus upon to begin to develop that strengthening of our national agenda that will build on our current success. Before addressing some of these in brief detail, I think it necessary to focus on three important policy questions that have enjoyed vibrant comment, lively inaccuracy, and national concern in the days following the budget debate: language in education; quality in public schools, and enrolment planning in higher education.

Zapiro captured these issues in a cartoon with the caption “can she tame the beasties” (these three issues) that had been unleashed from a pandora’s box. The language issue was depicted as a colonial man in the tropics trying to avoid the burning midday sun (due apologies to Zapiro for poor interpretation).

The fierce reaction in support of the perceived threat to English was somewhat surprising. All eleven official languages have been theoretically optional since the language in education policy was promulgated in 1997. The policy provides that learners must offer the school’s language of learning as one of their two languages. The moral panic generated in the media around English was based on a poor reading of policy and not on facts.

The media outcry illustrated a real feeling that must be taken seriously. I have stated previously that the study of English as a language of learning and teaching needs improvement, particularly given the place of the language in our education system. Nevertheless, I cannot be swayed from the belief that the indigenous languages of South Africa have been marginalized, neglected, underdeveloped and that their strengthening and revival depends to a great degree on what we do in education.

The learning of our indigenous languages will not be a threat to English, cannot be a threat. Rather it is an opportunity for justice and for beginning the development of languages that many use but that have a low place in the national hierarchy of languages.

It is common sense to develop all our language, to respond to the intimate connection between language and identity.

I believe it is correct for all our young people to acquire fluency in one of the nine African indigenous languages. Our challenge now is to act on the policy while also ensuring acquisition of effective competence in English and any other language chosen by parents and learners.

The second issue that the budget debate has thrown up is the huge issue of quality in our public schooling system.

Decades of racial, gender and other systemic inequalities have imposed an extensive quality agenda on our system.

The inequalities in the school sector range from the indignity of schools without toilets, water or classrooms to children forced to walk miles to school only to find no learning materials and no teacher.

We need to bridge the yawning chasm between urban and rural access to quality schooling and to act decisively to utilize public resources to develop infrastructure and provide qualified and competent educators. At the political heads level we have agreed to intensify progress in these areas.

Cause for increased concern emanates from the results of studies into children’s literacy and numeracy. Results at grade 3 a few years ago showed poor learning achievement, and recent evaluations point to similarly worrying outcomes. We must determine responses that actively reverse the negative trends. Further action on early childhood education, on defining an achievable and relevant teaching programme will assist.

Research shows that we need to know more about what is happening in the classroom, if we are to make qualitative advances. The bottom line is there are non-debatable basic conditions that must be created to facilitate effective teaching and learning in our schools.

Efforts to turn negative to positive are undermined by the poor funding previously given to black schools under apartheid. Added to this is the wastage that results from building a school in a community only to return a year later to find the school empty due to rural to urban migration. Appropriate planning and effective provisioning will have to become a strong focus in education.

Further action on co-ordination and co-operation across spheres will also assist in strengthening quality provision.

The third issue that has occupied the public since the education budget debate has been enrolment planning in higher education. The issue emerged before the budget when our proposal to vice-chancellors was leaked to the media. However, what was not leaked was the extensive role of consultation and negotiation with each institution over its plans for growth. In particular, the document sent to vice-chancellors indicated that we are open to discussion on this issue. It did not propose the exclusion of first-year students who fail.

I signalled my views on the claims to untrammelled autonomy in my response, in the Sunday Independent in August last year, to Professor Jansen’s T.B. Davie lecture. It was my view then that we must accept the need for state steering or regulation of higher education to ensure greater accountability for the use of public resources towards the attainment of broad policy goals. The steering must not be strangulation of the sector but it cannot be so loose as to have no impact on national priorities.

Planning is not a betrayal of our struggle for freedom. The proposal seeks to achieve a coherent sectoral response to our challenges. Any first-year student leader worth her salt knows something must be done and no amount of public mudslinging will obliterate the need to act on our inadequacies.

The issue of access has certainly been at the forefront of the struggle for quality higher education over the past two decades. Much has been achieved and we have been able to widen access to higher education institutions – 73% of students in higher education are black; just over 50% are women; there is a strong possibility of achieving the 20% participation target that was set as our 2010 objective; and enrolments in science, engineering and technology are now 27% of the total.

All this within a decade. Furthermore, this year alone we have increased the support to students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) by 50%.

All the concrete evidence before us points to a government committed to advancing the gains won through the sacrifice and leadership of young men and women of South Africa.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that much still needs to be done to achieve equitable access and defensible outcomes. In particular, graduation rates remain particularly low, especially for black students. The cost of failure is high, not only to individuals but also for the system as a whole. We estimate that the numbers of students dropping out of the system is costing a billion Rand, a significant proportion of the overall state budget for higher education.

No country that is committed to quality access to higher education can afford a “revolving door syndrome”, that is, admit students, take their fees and churn them out with no qualifications. Access and success cannot be separated. That is what the enrolment planning is for and we would be failing as a responsible government if we did not play a steering role in this regard.

We now have HESA’s considered response and as a government committed to sector debate we will consider their views as we develop our policy conclusion.

Linked to this debate is the early question I raised about the adequacy of institutional variation in South Africa. Our country needs to make greater use of FET colleges to produce the human development opportunities our country needs. Our efforts at recapitalisation are directed at developing the FET college sector into high-level skills training institutions.

We need to catch the wave of global employment restructuring, that tremendous shift in employment that is currently taking place from the United States and Europe to India and China, where there is such a highly skilled work force. By investing substantially in further education, we will be well placed to join these ambitious countries in competing for the expanding market in call centres, in computers, and in medical technology.

What this means is that the further education and higher education branches of the department of education need to work closely with each other and with their partners in higher and further education to ensure an effective transition from school to college and to university.

This brings me to the important matter of institutional variety and system coherence in South Africa. The current arrangement of GET, FET, FET colleges and universities is difficult to defend as coherent and logical; it does not secure opportunities for diverse learning and training. In our review of the schools act we will look at our institutional scheme and revise it.

In closing, let me say a word about the national department. Yes the national department is not off limits at this conference. Some think that there are too many politicians at the national level and not enough technicians, that personnel should be dispatched to the provinces. Others think there are too many theoreticians at the national level and that they do not have the practical knowledge to design workable policies.

There is a tension between the national and provincial levels of education. Perhaps at the centre we deflect blame to the provinces and perhaps, but only in private, they deflect blame to the centre. But what should national be doing now that the delivery of public services is our most pressing need in the provision of quality education for all? Are we over-stocked with policy wonks at the national level? Has there been too much “policy-making” and not enough attention devoted to simple performance standards.

If national’s role is to monitor and support performance, do we have an inappropriate mix of “coordination” versus real management, execution, and supervision?

These then are some of the salient questions that feature in public debates in education. They were posed in different ways by various constituencies. This conference provides a place in which to explore the detail and begin to determine solutions or responses. I trust that our deliberations will give the nation a sense that we have now reached the point at which we openly and realistically determine a way forward for the next decade.

I thank you.

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Written By: Administrator Account
Date Posted: 6/30/2008
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