Target the poor and quality education for all, says SA Education Minister
Interview with Professor Kader Asmal, South Africa's Education Minister
Grande Baie, Mauritius
South Africa has made huge strides since liberation from white minority rule almost ten years ago. But one of the key sectors the government is still determined to reform is education. South Africa has a high national literacy rate of 80 percent, but there remain imperfections in the education system that the responsible minister, Professor Kader Asmal, says he wants to iron out. There is also the legacy of the apartheid years, when black South Africans were subjected to a separate and inferior school system called 'Bantuí education.
Professor Asmal says key priorities now are curriculum development, teacher training, HIV/AIDS and higher education, as well as further education and training. In a wide-ranging interview with Nita Bhalla of Reuters and allAfrica.comís Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Professor Asmal outlined the educational policies of his government, looking back in history and ahead to its future. Now that many of the new policies are in place, he said, the focus is in implementation and monitoring.
The South African education minister is currently attending the 6th biennial meeting of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) in the Mauritian resort of Grande Baie.
Professor Asmal, how do you assess the general level of education across Africa?
Education, like everything else in Africa suffers from underdevelopment. There are extremes. And, like in every African country, there are virtually two educational systems.
One is a real system - for the wealthier, who can afford to set up their own schools or in urban areas, where the government sets up first class schools. And then thereís the poor and very poor whose facilities are still very, very primitive.
On the other hand, with the first flush of enthusiasm, you must remember that all African countries put an enormous amount into education.
I mean Zambia had four high schools for 4.5m people! They didnít have a university, they didnít have a teachersí training college. And, of course, Zimbabwe is a classic example of putting an enormous amount of money in what I call the social services - education, welfare, health and capital investment.
That is the most expensive one which future generations had to pay. And of course, part of this was that it was done on borrowed money. And the donors then put the squeeze on afterwards, which is a very important thing to remember about Zimbabwe too.
And so the underdevelopment reflects itself in low level teacher training, which everybody agrees is too academic and unrelated. Four years after Matric (high school graduation) or two years after Matric or sometimes (pre-1994) Standard 8 (end of basic education) people were becoming teachers.
Secondly, teaching is not the preferred profession in all African countries. Under colonialism, the only thing you could become was a nurse or a lawyer.
After colonialism, you wanted middle-level skills. And teaching is a middle level skill, right? And we couldnít attract people to that.
Now what about the case of South Africa and the legacy of 'Bantuí education in your country?
Now South Africa is a bit different. South Africa has a very highly developed educational system, although corrupted by what was known as Bantu education; the devilish method where (Hendrik) Verwoerd (then minister of native/Bantu affairs and chief architect of Bantu education under apartheid) said that we (black South Africans) know that we must not try to eat in the pastures of the white.
And so Africans didnít have any mathematics, barely any science nor qualified teachers of mathematics and science. And this is like an albatross round our necks you see.
Almost a decade after 'liberationí in South Africa, what has the ANC government been able to do to shed the legacy of Bantu education, apartheid etc?
Well, we have restructured the curriculum to reflect the democratic, non-racial, non-sexist assumptions of our society. In the first five years we adopted proper policies because, like the rest of Africa, in the end implementation is the name of the game. Therefore we had the right policy to implement. We re-structured 19 government departments to one and then, of course, transferred the real power to the provinces, because we have a federal system in South Africa as far as education is concerned. The provinces decide.
So the curriculum changes have taken place - massive changes.
No longer the old chalk and teach approach. It is more child-centred, with some emphasis on the content also. We call it outcomes-based education in South Africa.
Secondly, we went out of our way to have the participation of girls. 53 percent of our secondary school students are girls.
Thirdly we have 100 percent intake and access to primary schools.
Now that you have reached those goals, what comes next?
Now, of course, we must look very carefully at quality. Access goes with quality also. And so we have the system evaluation of teaching and assessment of student performance which I insisted on at Grades 3, 6 and 9 (respectively after 3, 6 and 9 years of schooling), without the emphasis - unfortunately the right-wing emphasis taking place in Europe - that everything is to be determined by examinations.
The next thing is that we decolonised the mind in South Africa; that we are an African state in Africa, not alongside Africa. That is very important. So we are bringing back history as a central, core element of our teaching.
But the total recasting of higher education I am very proud of and that we will be the first country that restructures higher education entirely from 36 institutions to 21 and holding the balance between the academic and the practical.
Then thereís the restructuring of technical education - which is another big gap that nobody is talking about at this conference - that is intermediate skills, not university, not high school, but aspiring. But if you want lifelong learning, then you have got to look at that cohort of people who may not pass Matric (finish school) or who pass Matric, but for various reasons may not have been able to go onto university.
Many universities in Africa are in a very bad state, because of the policies - external policies and, of course, policies of the World Bank and some of the European states - which emphasise basic education in relation to higher education, what I call a dichotomy. But there is no fundamental difference, because one leads to the other.
So we have held over expenditure in South Africa on higher education. On the contrary, we are spending more than R1bn on financial assistance, getting poor students into higher education. So this year 100,000 will get the national financial aid scheme. I think the only way of creating a group of black intellectuals in Africa is to give assistance to the poor. The middle class looks after themselves one way or another - either sending their children to Oxbridge or Paris or Washington or going to private institutions in their own countries.
So we stand very much on the stateís role in education as a public good. Therefore our position is to look at the practicalities, but also to look at the higher level and what is the kind of policy you want of education.
Of course, we are a multi-religious country, a multicultural country, a multi-linguistic country and the diversity and the value system of education is central. And that is very much part of the giving up of the old colonial system.
Despite everything youíve outlined and the progress South Africa has made in the past ten years since the end of white minority rule, back at home there is considerable criticism of the education system and especially of the outcomes-based curriculum.
I am not sure about this. The opinion surveys - and Iím not choosing them selectively and remember that this is a vast majority of black people too - real opinion surveys said that more than 80 percent are happy with the change in development in education in South Africa.
So, whatís your answer to your critics?
The critics are often self-appointed critics. You see we are a developing country and the critics behave as if they were a mature, advantaged, capitalist country and they think that there are unlimited amounts of investment to be made.
My job is to ensure, first of all, that there is a proper curriculum. We have revised the curriculum now and we are training people in the new curriculum extensively.
Secondly, the legacy of apartheid - which the critics donít worry about - means that 30 percent of our schools donít have water, 25 percent donít have any sanitation, 30 percent have no electricity. So we are trying to get some of the fundamental aspects dealt with.
You canít have quality teaching when you have enormous deprivation. Therefore, the rich send their children either to private schools in South Africa or the former government schools - which we call ex-Model C schools, and which are possibly some of the best schools in the world.
But they are run on a grammar school principle like in England, you see. They are run in a formalistic way, their culture is alien to South Africa. Their fundamental assumptions are not South Africa, so there is acculturation taking place.
I am much more concerned about the difficulties in outcomes-based education. Iíve told my officials that the revised curriculum will not be implemented unless I am satisfied that training takes place.
For example, we are doing a revolutionary thing. All our children, from next year, will learn about the religions of the world as a compulsory subject.
But surely most of the major religions of the world are reflected in the religions and among the peoples of in South Africa -
The major ones, yes. But the biggest church in South Africa is the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) which has 4.5 million members. It is always marginalised. But they are now very happy that they get parity of esteem in a free South Africa.
But of course we are not going to deal with every religion - such as Shintoism etc as they are reflected in South Africa itself. But, again, there was enormous opposition first, and very little support from the critics, and now itís generally accepted that South Africa is going to be the pacesetter in ensuring the lack of bigotry and exposing the lack of understanding.
So the children will learn under religion education about the great importance of the great ceremonies and observances but, more important, they can be confirmed in their own religion by learning about other religions. Now thatís very important.
As we had a settlement in 1994 of great political importance - we are the only country in the world that had a transfer of power without a real civil war - now we want to reflect that in every area. But every child must feel comfortable in school - thatís my slogan, that children should feel comfortable.
Some of the schools that were very poor and performing badly are now some of the best schools - township schools and rural schools. I donít lay a lot of emphasis on Matric results. When I took over at the Education Ministry in 1999, 49 percent of the students passed Matric. Itís now gone to 69 percent. The results are going to come up in a few daysí time and weíll see the progress in them on 30 December 2003.
I donít think the value and the quality of a school are determined by the terminal examination. Iíve never thought that because some of the brilliant people I know never passed their matriculation examination or didnít even do them. An examination is really only a passport to the next step.
But, of course, the most important for us in South Africa, which you havenít asked me yet, is how do you deal with the relics - like the rest of Africa faces - of tribalism, chauvinism, gender discrimination and nobody mentions female circumcision. How do you have protection of dignity when you remove from females an essential part of their anatomy?
So how are you dealing with those problems in South Africa?
Well we have a huge programme which is not controversial. But central to our attack on HIV/AIDS is the question of sexuality education.
Now that was one question I had for you and was surprised that you hadnít spoken about -
Very few countries have succeeded in doing that. Advanced European countries have female pregnancy at the age of 12, young marriages at the age of 13. And these are countries I know very well. So we will make it a core element of life skills education - sexuality education. The right to say no. My slogan is the right to say no by women. That encapsulates that.
You see you canít have condom distribution - which many countries are doing - without [young people] experimenting with them - unless, in fact, you relate it to the development of their own bodies and the understanding of what they are doing.
So Iím a strong apostle of sexuality education.
And does that include education and awareness training on HIV/AIDS, because of course the UN says South Africa is the country with the greatest number of people apparently living with HIV/AIDS?
Iím not sure about that -
Well according to the United Nations.
Iím not sure. We are carrying out a systematic study of HIV/AIDS among teachers and young people now. It costs us a lot of money.
But we are doing an actual survey, not extrapolating from women in clinics, which is what the UN figures show you.
I donít want to get into an argument about HIV/AIDSí statistics, Iím more interested right now in what sort of education there is for schoolchildren in South Africa on the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Very extensive, very extensive. The only systematic study was carried out jointly by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Human Science Research Council (HRSC) last year, where they looked at 8,000 people and gave them AIDSí tests by the way. And they found that 85 percent of the people learned about HIV/AIDS from schools.
But even that group - from 50 to 65 - 20 percent learned about HIV/AIDS from schools.
So whatís in the curriculum on HIV/AIDS?
Knowledge in cognition to behaviour, because knowledge is there now. And HIV/AIDS under the new curriculum is not life skills only. It will be in all the other areas too in so far as this is relevant.
Right? So in history of course they learn that more people die from smoking in the world than HIV/AIDS. And, in Africa, more people die from malaria than from HIV/AIDS.
So we have to relate these pandemics and why they affect Africa. Of course, the conclusion may be that the great pharmaceutical countries are much more interested in finding a cure for asthma and spend billions on cancer, but nothing on prophylactics for malaria.
And you may draw appropriate conclusions as to why, for example as we began this interview, the state of education in Africa is in the present state that it is. And that is, for example, that those who in fact were colonial powers are not prepared to - not to give gifts and aid - but are not prepared to do the kind of proper work about sustaining our agriculture and our development, by fair trade.
All they are interested in is free trade. And so, for example, if they had fewer tariffs on cotton, Africa would get US$1bn immediately. Now what would happen in Niger and in other cotton-producing countries like Egypt and elsewhere with US$1bn?
The other last point is that we canít have a flourishing education system without freedom and democracy. That is quite clear. You canít talk about quality education - as this conference does - without in fact recognising the dignity of every person, which is a democratic lesson, the right to dignity of everyone.
Therefore, since HIV/AIDS demonises people and excludes them, we have to learn the lesson through the school system of compassion, solidarity and assistance, rather than demonisation and exclusion.
If I were to go into a classroom of 8 year olds or 14 year olds or 18 year olds in South Africa, what would I learn about, say, malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS?
Well youíd learn a great deal about HIV/AIDS now. Our job now, with life skills, is to say that you canít have proper respect for yourself if you drink water, which will give you cholera, more likely.
And so this is the beginning. Remember, we have only been free for 10 years. And the curriculum, which you tend to say other people are criticising, it is only five years old! Remember that. Itís only five years old.
When I was previously minister of water affairs, I would see immediate changes. Changes in education are incremental. Sometimes I say itís like watching paint dry, you know. Itís much more exciting than watching paint dry!
So what would I learn about HIV/AIDS?
Youíd learn a great deal about the kids knowing, like my grandson whoís 10, when I tell him Iím going to hospital for a check-up, immediately he says "Grandpa youíre too old to have HIV and AIDS."
With fear in his voice?
No, no, no, because I have a good relationship with him. No, he has an understanding. Thatís the important thing - understanding. Now I donít want to extrapolate from my grandson, but my own view is that the Mandela Foundation Enquiry - which I commend and which everyone should read - says that there is a great deal of understanding (85 percent from schools).
But in the absence of a cure, the social cure is education and behaviour. And this is what we are trying to instill. And Iím sure if you go to rural schools, weíre one of the few countries where theyíll be able to tell you about HIV and AIDS. They may not be able to understand the complexity of the syndrome or the absence of a vaccine, but theyíll be able to tell you about that now.
Returning to your thoughts on international trade and the linkage with education, how much do you think international trade is affecting education in Africa?
Well, there are two ways of looking at it. One way is to note the absence of investment, which was promised at (World Bank-sponsored Financing for Development meeting in) Monterrey (Mexico) when the conference was held. Promises were made about investment and assistance which have not been fulfilled. In my view, education should occupy the central role in governing health, governing development, citizenship people forget. There is educational training for jobs only, there should be for citizenship too.
The priority is to be given to education and states canít do that, because of the debts they have - the foreign debts - are so enormous. At a time when all the international institutions wanted to lend money, it was like your local bank manager 20 years ago who wanted to throw money at all and now says I will repossess your house.
So in educational policy terms, now they say you must restructure your economy. Restructuring means health, welfare and education goes down the spout. That is restructuring. Even the World Bank now recognises it. And certainly Professor (Joseph) Stiglitz (former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank between 1997-2000) is recognising that the restructuring exercise they carried out in the last 20 years has been disastrous really. It has pauperised this continent. Thatís the first thing.
By restructuring do you mean modernising various industries?
Privatising and less investment in health and education, thatís the main thing. The perilous position of universities in Africa is because the investment stopped. Under the guise of free education - well there is no such thing as free education because tax payers have to pay for it - but free education is a subsidy for the middle class.
The educational system should target the poorest. Move resources, thatís what weíre trying to do in South Africa now, move resources - human resources, capital resources and current expenditure to the poorest.
The second aspect is, of course, the attempt by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to open up the markets - particularly for training. And this is something the South African government is objecting to, because education is not a service. It is a public good.
Now if you allow access like that, like the United Statesí demand on South Africa, we must give the same rights and privileges to the private providers as we give to the state, thatís impossible! We reject the idea that education is a service.
Now the opening of the markets, without symmetry is not in the interests of Africa. I would argue that the US and the European Union should open up the agricultural sector. You know the US and the European Union spend US$300bn on subsidies in the agricultural section. If they opened it up, then we could consider opening up the education sector, although I think it is fundamentally different.
Are you talking about the whole of Africa?
For the whole of Africa, there is an enormous development of private education in Africa. Private education means high fees education. That means, therefore, the elite, who could always send their children overseas - the "been-tos" I think they were called - the elite can now not only send their children overseas, but their second and third children can go to private schools and private universities. This means concurrently the state sectorís role would be diminished.
And of course many of these very poor countries give similar subsidies to private higher education as they give to the state sector. We wonít do that in South Africa. We have very strict regulation on private education. They have to have the same curriculum in schools. They must not discriminate and, in the higher education sector, they must look at the quality assessment.
You see itís a given, people think, out of snobbery, that because the state is providing a service, automatically itís inferior to what the private sector does. And itís a mistake. The education is tied up with the whole history, the philosophy, the ethnics of the national urge for change and development.
This is particularly important for us in South Africa, because we want a South African educational system, entrenched in Africa. We donít want the policies and the songs of the old colonial system which many of our schools have.
And so proper trading relations, proper aid systems are vital. Conversely, we donít want to open up our small market to private investors.
For example, they intend to have an international e-university, a virtual university. This will devastate Africa. And, of course, the whole assumption of these will be for profit, not for national growth and development. Thatís the important thing.
And thatís why the restructuring of higher education in South Africa is enormously important. Thatís why we must be more student friendly, more professional, more research being carried out, better salaries for the staff, because higher education is vital for the growth and development of South Africa.
Take skills training - only the universities can provide it at that level. The impact of ICT [information and communication technology] on teaching methods, we are not talking about that here. But itís going to be enormously important, not as a toy, as often it is unfortunately, but secreted into the very teaching, where the teacher is still important. Thatís the important thing - secreted into the very teaching, where the teacher becomes a sort of referee in the classroom. The kids will often know more about ICT than the teacher, so the nature of teaching will change too, providing itís integrated into the teaching methods.
But how realistic is it to talk about ICT - perhaps in South Africa - for the rest of Africa when even basic primary education is a problem?
I raised this point here about the African virtual university. In South Africa itís true too that many of the companies come to me to say we can provide this. But I tell them youíre only providing to those who have electricity and already have capacity, whose children have modems and laptops and all that. So Iím not interested in all that.
We are now committed, by 2012, to ensure that every school in South Africa has connectivity. We are doing that because you know we are giving licences for broadband width, for cellular telephones etc. They have social responsibilities. Other African countries are not doing it. You know, cellular telephones are a licence to print your own money! 90 percent profits a year. And so we are doing that, because they must invest, because a more literate society is going to be a society that uses their facilities much more.
So South Africa accounts for 80 percent of the connectivity in Africa. But Africa accounts for only 2 percent of connectivity of the whole world. That is why the Virtual University must develop its own curriculum. But it must be very carefully that it uses multiple media, multimedia.
The radio in Africa should be king and queen really, the radio! In urban areas possibly television, because the other things are so expensive, and only the very rich - and there are not many very rich in Africa - will be able to afford it. So itís important to do it in a complimentary way. Develop your primary school and do a first-class job in teacher training.
I am very interested in what happens at teacher training colleges and whether they reflect the new debates about curriculum and all that or sexuality education, for example - what, in fact, they are teaching. But the most important thing I feel, as a former teacher, is that there is no symmetry in the school system. And my view is that they still teach children and their students as if they go to perfectly endowed and equipped schools.
Suddenly these kids find that they are going to school when theyíre 19 and 20, that theyíre going to school where there is no blackboard and there is no water and there is child abuse. And then the canteen culture takes off. You keep quiet with the canteen culture. And so I am interested to know, in this asymmetrical world, whether they are consciously training people to recognise that there are going to be enormous inequalities in a school, in a district and between one province and another.
Do I take it then, Professor Asmal, that you are rather critical of this 6th biennial meeting of the Association of the Development of Education in Africa and that you donít think that the priorities are being discussed here in Mauritius - where the theme is 'The Quest for Quality Learning from the Experience of Africa?'
No Iím not critical. Iíve always said that if I learn one thing in a conference it is worthwhile attending a conference. I heard a remarkable young man from West Africa speaking - he is a school leaver - about what is wrong with the school system and what he aspires to. He must be about 17 or so. It is wonderful to listen to the voice of young people.
No, no. I donít think there is enough fundamental analysis of education here. And I feel also that some of the papers being presented are fighting old-fashioned, World Bank arguments about the state being the main enemy. The fact is that only the state is able to deliver, remember that, on health, welfare and education.
Would you have the loyalty and support - particularly in our fragmented societies in Africa, because we are all fragmented? If the state canít do that, warlords take over - either religious warlords or political warlords take over. Thatís a lesson and that is why they shouldnít be fighting this antiquated battle.
The second thing I think also is that there is too much emphasis on ideal solutions from the north. There must be more indigenous solutions - particularly in curriculum development.
Now it is true that not enough thinking is done in African universities about education, because I look at the names of the authors in the main material published here and there are very few African names, very few African names.
And, therefore, I think that there is an obligation on international agencies to encourage research. Consultants should be Africans in my view. Now, of course they will make terrible mistakes. I canít write a project proposal to save my life! But I do know, having received project proposals, that project proposals are an art!
Then you go and do your own thing whatever the project proposal may say! As long as there is no corruption, I donít mind, because things develop!
But if I canít draft a project proposal, what do you think academics will do? They are not intellectual entrepreneurs. I hope they donít become intellectual entrepreneurs! I hope they will use indigenous knowledge and oral history to speak about Africa. We have wonderful African historians, but we have few African educational academics.
So I am not critical here but, by nature, I want to look at more fundamental things, to justify my presence here, right? More fundamental things are very important.
Put it this way, the 'whyí question, rather than the 'whatí question. There are too many 'whatí answers - empirical studies here, empirical studies there, from which you canít generalise. Because I do know in the end that there is a difference between what governments tell you in a study, what happens when you choose your place, and what happens in real life.
Having done studies for the European Union myself when I was in exile, I know that very few comparative studies work really, because you are not comparing like with like. There are socio-economic differences and there are cultural differences and religious differences.
How can you talk freely about the education of women, for example, when in some countries some young women have to leave school at the age of puberty? How can you talk about the value and dignity of women without talking about abuse of young girls in schools, right? And this is fairly extensive, but it also fairly extensive in Europe by the way and also in the United States. So itís not just Africans misbehaving. I have comparative studies about the incidence of sexual abuse. And let me just remind you that this is the 16 days of campaigning against sexual abuse by the United Nations. And we ought to be much more aware of that.
So Iím not being critical about the conference, but I think there are unanswered questions about why in some countries education doesnít have esteem among ministers and cabinets.
That is why Nepad - the programme for Africaís development - is giving priority to education and training. That is going to put challenges in front of countries to give it priority. The South African government gives it priority. We spend R22bn on education. That is the largest expenditure outside our foreign debt funding on education. Nearly 6% of our gross national product goes on education.
My question is are we getting value for money?
And your answer?
The jury is out. Remember, like in all countries, 85 percent of expenditure is on salaries. In one province itís 89 percent. So you have only 11 percent left. And so my battle in South Africa is that we are saying R450 per child across Africa - that would be about US$60 then - should be the expenditure on non-personal costs. One province shouldnít be spending R450 while another province spends R20. Thatís about US$2. Thatís the African average - US$2.
So the answer is therefore, to target the poor. Thatís what I want this conference to understand. Target the poor, because the rich can look after themselves as they do everywhere else, providing they pay their taxes. So, target the poor, because poverty and education and hunger and education are inextricably linked.
That is why we must get our priorities right. For example, we should be developing school gardens. I mean there are people, there are old these old mamas who know enormous amounts about growing. So I say yes to school gardens.
The state canít always afford this. Here in South Africa we do the minimal thing. We spend about R1bn on the school feeding system. Iím not very happy about the way it is being administered - or was - but we are taking over at education in April. But we need to develop some countervailing measures to overcome hunger.
But nobody talks about how you can have a child learning, and of course doing better, without a fuller stomach. We have no tests of eyes, yet we know that childrenís performance is often affected by hearing problems and eye problems.
Yet we talk blithely with these foreign consultants about progress in values and progress in quality, but we leave out the marginalised.
So the job in the education system - and Iím pleased that I went to one of the sessions on less formal education - is to look at young people in prison, street children (which is a European problem also) and children who have never been to school. We have only had compulsory education since 1997 - thatís only seven years.
Also women, regardless of their age, because the education system passes them by. So I would say in some Muslim countries, where girls have to leave school, wrongly in my view, at the age of 12, should be targetted.
Nigeria, for example, has a special section dealing with migratory workers. Now thatís an innovative thing, so we can teach other countries in the world using the Nigerian experience. And, by the way, itís run by a group of wonderful women.
And thatís another thing, we should have more women administrators, because they understand poverty. Even if they come from middle class backgrounds, they understand poverty, they understand deprivation, they understand the hunger of the soul which the education system may not be meeting.
So thatís another thing. You look at the platforms and they are all men on the platforms!
Including you, Professor Asmal!
Well Iím a man, but I canít help that! But what matters is in my soul. Itís my views that matter. So, in one of the workshops I went to, after I spoke I said Iím leaving now and the minister of education of this country is a woman, so why doesnít she take my place at the table, because there is no woman on the table. Now I donít think the men like my views about this, but I canít help being a man! But I can help with my views about womenís emancipation.
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