March 30, 2017

Quality, the glue that binds

As the recipients of the biggest slice of this year's budget, the Department of Education must ensure that it strategically allocates the funds and manages them properly to achieve positive outcomes. 


Allocation to basic education

The Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, in his 2017 budget speech suggests that the provision of quality education is central to government’s commitment and this can be realised by prioritising the foundation phase of schooling. This is in line with the department of basic education’s (DBE) strategic plan, which places programmes geared towards supporting early learning at the forefront of its programme of action. In her 2016 budget vote speech, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, noted that “improved quality of education is an apex priority of government”.

Expenditure on education receives the lion’s share of the budget – a trend which continues with this year’s budget allocation of R243 billion, or 17.5% of the consolidated budget, towards basic education. However, it is important to ensure that funds are strategically allocated and properly managed to achieve positive outcomes on the education system.


Towards quality education for all

A critical element towards the achievement of quality education, which Gordhan commendably recognised in his speech, is that “improvements have to begin in the foundation phase of the education value-chain”. While the 2017 budget gave an overview of the guiding principles, the detail with regard to the education spend will be spelled out by the basic education ministry in its budget vote in the next few months.


Getting the foundation right

The Zenex Foundation also supports the need for increased allocation towards early learning, as espoused in the budget speech. The country has made progress in this regard by investing in the foundation phase, including grade R. Until we deal with the foundation phase education we will face significant learner backlogs. Dealing with them late will be difficult and expensive to fix. Teachers at high school level are often presented with learners with massive learning backlogs, which government and the private sector have put vast resources into trying to remedy. Yet there is evidence to show that these interventions are too late and costly. In order to achieve outcomes at that level, more efforts should be put into improving the foundations of education, particularly literacy and numeracy.

This is supported by further evidence from a study undertaken by Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) which shows that learner performance in grade 3 is a strong predictor for performance in grade 12. In addition, good gains at primary schools also contribute to the decision to stay or drop out of school. I believe that learners with good foundations are less likely to drop out and will have improved chances to transit to positive post-schooling opportunities.


Focus on language from foundation to further education

Literacy acquisition, specifically reading and comprehension, is critical for overall academic achievement. Building this at foundation phase calls for investing in home language instruction in the foundation phase paired with the introduction of the first additional language (if English is not the learner’s home language). Given these realities, strengthening the teaching and learning of literacy and language is seen as an enabler for improving performance. This is particularly true in gateway subjects, such as mathematics and science, where English is the language of instruction.

We believe investment in African language development should be the priority in our attempt to strengthen literacy development in the country. Specifically the need for African graded readers for learners across primary school is dire.

In the light of evidence in the field and the critical needs stated above, we are pleased with the 9.5% budget increase in allocation for learning and teaching support materials.


Focus on teacher and school leadership development and support

While socio-economic circumstances account for up to 50% of learners’ education outcomes, school leaders and teachers play a significant role in the quality of outcomes. Teachers, in particular, have the closest proximity to learners and are best placed to effect change in the quality of outcomes. As such, prioritising the quality of teachers is central to improving quality. Historically, personnel costs, comprised primarily of teacher salaries, constitute the biggest slice of the basic education budget.


What does this mean for you and me?

Large-scale education change is complex and takes time. We need to expect slow, incremental improvement as opposed to drastic improvements that are unrealistic and not sustainable. There is evidence that the system is improving slightly. However, more needs to be done and all stakeholders in education are an important piece of the puzzle. This includes parents, teachers, management teams, government officials, NGOs and the donor community.

Given the government’s apex priority – quality education – we should all be looking forward to the 2017 DBE budget vote speech and details on the allocation.

Dr Andile Dube is the acting CEO at the Zenex Foundation.