Beyond left and right: State versus parents

Alex | Sep 29, 2009
Lawrence Schlemmer reflects on parental and communal attitudes to education in post-apartheid South Africa.

Summary - The most serious problem facing South Africa today is high unemployment, which is generally agreed to reflect low levels of employability in the population. The skills needs of the economy are constantly rising, in line with global trends, and therefore the only long-term solution to unemployment is to raise the quality of education. Are we doing enough to help the government focus its attention on this challenge? In a recent survey, 65 per cent of parents said they were very satisfied (40 per cent) or satisfied (25 per cent) with the present education system. However, there were wide variations in this overall endorsement. Black parents, especially the least well-educated, are the most satisfied. Clear majorities of Indian and white parents are dissatisfied, with Indian parents the most unhappy of all. Reasons for satisfaction are that education has improved since the end of apartheid, children are achieving better results, facilities are being upgraded, poor parents are not required to pay fees, and teacher quality is improving. The reasons offered for dissatisfaction include a belief that outcomes-based education has lowered standards, unease at the plethora of curriculum reforms, and an impression that authorities are unresponsive to parents’ needs. When parents were asked to evaluate specific aspects of education, other problem areas emerged that were not prominent in the spontaneous replies. The lack of job opportunities after education was a major source of dissatisfaction, followed by learner discipline (Indians and whites), affordability (all groups but especially Indians and Afrikaners), teacher motivation and quality (Indians), new religious instruction policies (Indians and whites), language of instruction (Indians), facilities and equipment (blacks and Indians), inter-group relations (Indians), government interference (Indians and whites), relations with governing bodies (Indians and whites), and standards (Indians and whites). A major reason for the high level of disaffection among Indians is that they invested time and effort in their previously segregated schools, improving standards to the point where they approached those of white schools. Since 1994, however, these schools have attracted many black pupils and new teachers, and are now exposed to socio-economic challenges, different lifestyles and second-language competency problems. Standards, and the effects of OBE on standards, are major concerns among white and Indian parents. Afrikaans-speaking white parents show less concern about mother-tongue education than might be expected, given that the influx of black learners to Afrikaans schools was accompanied by demands for parallel-medium instruction. The reason is that the schools are still staffed by Afrikaans teachers who maintain Afrikaans cultural and discipline standards. The survey results raise some vital issues. Firstly, rapid educational reform has created deep concerns about ‘experimentation’. Parents are not averse to reform per se, but they need to be persuaded that changes are beneficial, and this has not been the case. For example, the introduction into the syllabi of more life-skills courses is resented by many parents who believe that correspondingly less time is available for core subjects. For many parents, the purpose of education is to develop essential skills rather than to ‘shape’ the child; on the other hand, governments worldwide cannot resist the temptation to use education for additional purposes such as nation-building, or inculcating certain ideologies. Governments need to acknowledge that children are not the state’s to shape or experiment with. Parents have an inalienable right to decide what is best for their children. Finally, the survey shows that most black parents are satisfied with the education system; it is minorities who are unhappy. The government may conclude from this that the disaffected parents are ideologically biased, and this may be partly true. However, it is also true that they are the same people who have the education and experience to make informed assessments about the quality of the system. We cannot afford to ignore informed and legitimate opinion.

Franklin D Roosevelt made the fairly obvious point that, in a democracy at any rate, “A government can be no better than the public opinion that sustains it”. In other words, people get the governance that they deserve.

This elegant simplicity includes some ironic twists for governments. Roosevelt might have added the corollary that a government’s most adoring supporters can be its worst enemies, and its real friends can be its critics. This irony is well illustrated by the state of public education in South Africa, as the following brief analysis will attempt to show.

Education is freely acknowledged to be the key to South Africa’s future progress and prosperity. The country’s most serious current problem is the fact that it has one of the highest recorded rates of unemployment in the world, which peaks among the youth and school-leavers. Most people, several members of cabinet included, agree that this rampant unemployment reflects low levels of employability in the population, once again particularly among school-leavers. In an economy in which the skills needs of the economy are constantly rising, following the inescapable global trend, the only long-term solution is to raise the quality of education. Focused training can help in specific situations, but an individual’s capacity to be trained also depends fundamentally on the quality of education.

How well are South Africa’s citizens helping government to focus its attention on this challenge? The results of a recent survey1 of reactions to education among a representative national sample of 1450 parents2 can help to answer this question.

Parents’ levels of satisfaction with current education in South Africa

Overall, some 65 per cent of parents declare themselves to be either very satisfied (40 per cent) or satisfied (25 per cent) with education as currently administered. Most governments in the world would be delighted by a response such as this to a portfolio that is frequently controversial. The near two-thirds endorsement disguises wide variations in opinion, however, as is clear from Graph One.

The differences in levels of satisfaction are striking. The most satisfied are black parents, and the least well-educated parents in particular. The least satisfied are Indian parents, followed by white Afrikaans-speakers. Clear majorities of Indian and white parents are dissatisfied with educational policy and provision, with Indian parents most dissatisfied of all.

Reasons for satisfaction given by parents are much as would be expected. The main perceptions involved, in order of importance, are that education has improved since the end of the apartheid era, that children are achieving better or good results and are more motivated, that equipment and facilities are being upgraded, an appreciation of the fact that poor parents are not forced to pay fees and that teacher quality is improving.

The reasons for dissatisfaction are rather less obvious. The spontaneous responses of the dissatisfied parents are set out in Table One.

The results among minorities are a dramatic defeat for the efforts of the education planners to convince parents and stakeholders that Outcomes-based Education will improve the quality of output from schools. There is also unease at all the curriculum reforms and regulatory changes, and negative comments on the responsiveness of the authorities to parents’ needs suggest a degree of lack of faith in the quality of consultation of school governing bodies.

The reasons for dissatisfaction in Table One are those of the parents who are unhappy with the situation in general. Hence it was necessary to canvass all parents’ views more comprehensively on all major issues in education. Full reactions were sought on a range of specific issues presented to parents for evaluation and their reactions to these specific aspects are given in Table Two. Because the focus here is on problem identification only the levels of dissatisfaction are presented. Levels of satisfaction, obviously, are the differences between the percentages in the table and 100 per cent.

It is noteworthy that when parents were canvassed on specific issues, perceptions of problems emerged that were not prominent in the spontaneous replies. This is not because they are less important but simply because the respondents did not refer to everything in their spontaneous reasons for dissatisfaction. For example, high levels of dissatisfaction with learner discipline were not necessarily attributed to the system of education and hence were not mentioned by some categories of parents in their spontaneous answers. The results above must therefore be seen as overall reactions not necessarily limited to state provision and policy.

The last item in the table — job opportunities — is most clearly external to schools as such, but it is relevant in two ways: first the lack of opportunities can de-motivate learners and second, as the introduction suggests, the quality and type of education facilitates employability.

After the lack of job opportunities, the major perceived problems reflected in the table as given by categories of parents are:

  • Learner discipline: Indian and white parents
  • Affordability and costs: all parents but Indians and Afrikaners in particular
  • Teacher motivation and quality: Indian parents
  • New policies of religious instruction: Indians and whites
  • Language of instruction, including the language competence of teachers: Indians
  • Facilities and equipment: black and Indian parents
  • Race and inter-group relations: Indian parents
  • Government interference: Indian and white parents
  • Lack of responsiveness to governing bodies: Indian and white English-speaking parents
  • Standards of education and outcome: Indian and white parents

Certain of these results are surprising and require comment. It is clear that the most generally disaffected parents are Indian. One major reason for this is that Indian parents invested time and effort in their previously segregated schools, and the quality of the schools improved to the point that they were approaching the standards of white schools. Today, however, these schools, which are often located in buffer zones between black and mainly white residential areas, have attracted large numbers of black learners and some new teachers. The former character of the schools has changed. Indian parents do not perceive the problem in racial terms but they are now exposed to a range of socio-economic problems, different learner lifestyles and second language competency problems. The pace of change has clearly disrupted the kind of institutions that they had nurtured during apartheid, and the results are obvious to see.

Concerns about standards and the effects of Outcomes-based Education on standards, is dominantly an issue among white and Indian parents. The reasons here are that it is mainly in the formerly segregated white and Indian schools that parents cannot help noticing that high grades and symbols have become more frequent. They might enjoy it in one sense but it leaves them with great uncertainty about the real competitiveness of their children’s preparation for the tough challenges ahead. There are also aspects of the new syllabi that they do not see as relevant to occupational and academic challenges after school. They are also most likely to be aware of the poor results in numeracy and literacy in the systemic evaluations of grade 3 and 6 learners and South Africa’s poor showing in international assessments.

One might have expected Afrikaans-speaking white parents to show more concern about mother-tongue education. The formerly exclusive Afrikaans schools have attracted relatively more black learners than the formerly segregated English language schools, due to the fact that the Afrikaans schools, on average, have had more space for new entrants. With the new inflow have come demands for parallel medium instruction. The reasons for the lack of concern about language at this point is that the Afrikaans teachers are still there and as long as these teachers are able to maintain a particular language culture and mode of discipline, the introduction of English is often seen as an advantage rather than a threat. If it were to happen that the staff (and their languages) was to be transformed at the same pace, an explosion of concern would occur, similar to the reactions of Indian parents.

The complaints about affordability from parents whose household incomes are well above the national average may also be surprising. They are realistic, however, to the extent that fees and additional expenses in former Model C schools, and also in middle class schools that have to run parallel medium education, have risen to levels that are close to those of independent schools. The parents may be richer than average but in addition to fees, their rates and taxes, insurance and transportation costs are also well above average.

Concluding comment

The results that have been reviewed cannot be discussed in technical detail here, but they raise some vital issues basic to the mission of a state in providing education. The first is the pattern of rapid educational reform that has led to many parents expressing deep concern about what they often see as policy “experimentation”. These particular parents would accept, and even welcome, reforms if they fully understood and accepted the beneficial effects. This is far from the being the case, however. The policy debate prior to the introduction of the reforms has often been conducted in the jargon of progressive “policy speak” that tends to elude all but some graduate parents, and these parents often have the insights to question the propositions.

For example, the introduction into syllabi of more content relating to life skills and social awareness does not impress parents who feel that they are at least as well qualified as a newly trained teacher to convey those insights to their children. If this content is seen to subtract from the time available for developing core skills in reading, comprehension, writing and quantitative subjects, then it may well be resented. These parents may have a point. Few average schools can compete with a resource-rich home environment in developing social skills and insights, as many studies have demonstrated.

This raises the issue of the underlying purpose of schooling. Parents whose children are in ordinary schools often see the purpose of education as being to develop certain essential specifics rather than to “shape” the learner. Those who want the latter will pay very high fees to high quality independent schools that have long-standing cultural and class traditions.

Governments the world over, on the other hand, have never been able to resist the temptation to use education for purposes additional to the specifics — national development, nation-building and sometimes the shaping of future citizens in ideological or idealistic modes.

The debate between these two approaches will never achieve resolution unless one basic fact is acknowledged — the children or “learners” are not the state’s to shape or experiment with. More basic than the premises of any advanced educational policy is the fact that a school is only a very temporary extension of the family and that parents’ views and needs have to be respected because they have natural, or inalienable rights to decide what is best for their children.

An even broader issue takes us back to Roosevelt’s observation. The results of the survey show that the majority of the population, and, from results not shown, an even larger majority of those who vote for the government, are happy with education because they believe that it is improving. Minorities are dissatisfied. This will tempt any government on earth to conclude that the dissatisfactions spring from ideological bias or partisanship. Yes, to some extent that may be true.

But to at least an equal extent, the minorities that are dissatisfied are also the people whose own education and exposure to informed opinion equips them to have valid views on the quality of the educational system. Their needs may be no more valid than those of the less well-educated masses, but their opinions should carry weight. If the government chooses to dismiss these dissatisfactions, then indeed, the less-dissatisfied masses will be getting the effects of Roosevelt’s dictum good and hard, and along with it the education that their uncritical innocence deserves.

End notes
1. A full report on this survey will be published as part of the proceedings of a conference organised by professor Hermann Giliomee of the Afrikaanse Oorlegplatform and the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans, held at the university of the Western Cape between the 4th and 5th of June, 2004. The survey was sponsored by the Het Jan Marais Nationale Fonds, Stellenbosch. The author’s participation, as director of The Helen Suzman Foundation, in designing and analysing the survey, was enabled by support to the Foundation from Investec. The generosity of these donors is gratefully acknowledged.
2. The fieldwork for the survey was conducted by MarkData (Pty) Ltd, and involved face-to-face interviews among a stratified probability sample of 1450 parents of children in school, between February and March 2004. Professor Hermann Giliomee’s inputs in designing the study are gratefully acknowledged.

Major reasons for dissatisfaction (Note: OBE refers to Outcomes-based Education) (Table One)
Categories of parents Major reasons for dissatisfaction in order of importance (Note: OBE refers to outcomes-based education)
Blacks Costs, lack of equipment, OBE lowers standards, overcrowding
Coloured OBE lowers standards, costs, poor discipline, too many policy changes, rapes, crimes and drugs, overcrowding
Indians OBE lowers standards, costs, standards generally, poor teacher motivation, overcrowding, authorities unresponsive to needs
White Afrikaans OBE lowers standards, costs, standards generally, poor discipline, too many changes, overcrowding, new policies on religious instruction, racial tensions at schools
White English OBE lowers standards, standards generally, too many changes, authorities unresponsive to needs, lack of equipment, poor teacher motivation, costs


Levels of dissatisfaction with specific aspects of education (Table Two): Percentages of parents who are very or fairly dissatisfied, or who perceive inadequacies
Aspects of education          
  Black Coloured Indian White Afrikaans White English
  % % % % %
Affordability 38 40 67 60 36
Discipline 28 34 77 67 64
Teacher motivation 29 34 63 36 41
Teacher quality 23 21 60 27 20
Religious instruction 32 30 56 49 45
Language of instruction 24 17 54 19 28
Facilities/ equipment 43 25 47 24 15
Inter-group relations 34 15 47 23 30
Government interference 30 27 76 49 60
Respect for governing bodies 24 15 43 30 45
Parental involvement 21 19 31 25 23
Education & examination standards 22 14 58 46 47
Communication to parents 23 13 32 26 32
Job opportunities after education 49 42 66 77 63