Shut Down the Education Department!

Should government be trusted with shaping the citizenry?


Over the next week or so I am focusing on education. As a teacher and political writer, I have some ideas on how to fix our country’s shameful blight, and I am going to share three pieces on this issue over the next few days.

A few years ago, in the wake of hearing some shocking exam results from government schools in the Western Cape, I wrote a piece for the Cape Argus arguing that the Department of Education should be shut down, and the education budget handed over to school governing bodies as subsidies and to parents in the form of fee vouchers.

I still stand by that idea.

I don’t think government should be in the education business. Sure, government should make sure justice is being done in schools, and that there is money for education in poor communities. But there is no way government is competent to manage schools, deal with curriculum and the like. In fact, they have a conflict of interest, as they have a motive to ensure young people don’t question state ideology too closely.

Anyway, before you lambast me in the comments section, give the Argus piece a good read below, and then let the discussion begin!

Next week, we’ll move on from discussing policy and look at what should be taught…

Article follows below:

We have all by now read and discussed the fallout from the shocking failure rate of the Western Cape Education Department’s standardised maths tests – tests which saw only 10 percent of students pass numeracy assessments. Of course, the corollary question of how such students suddenly pass matric maths at a rate of 70 percent has also been agonisingly analysed.

But whenever any of the myriad of our education’s incredibly damning statistics (one example – we spend more money than any African country for nearly the worst results) are presented in the media for discussion, no solutions comparable to the scope of the crisis are ever proposed.

Instead, we hear more of the same – the unions must play ball, the government must improve teacher training, more resources required, et cetera.

And whilst all of those proposals are valid, the fact remains that in our current system such proposals are all either unlikely to be applied or simply do not correspond to the gravity of our crisis.

This truth is only more palpable when one considers the latest education policy developments.

Recently, the education department introduced CAPS (a new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) that seeks to undo the damage of OBE, whilst saving political face via a superficial retention of the highly politicised OBE methodology.

CAPS will finally introduce positive content into our education instead of ethereal ‘outcomes’. This is a highly welcome decision, and, on the face of it, should be a key factor in saving our education system.

Yet when one investigates the application of the solution, it becomes blindingly obvious that no solution housed within the current education bureaucracy can ever work. For instance, I challenge anyone to try to find a document on a government website that clearly states the content and assessment required for each subject in each phase.

Instead one is lost in a labyrinth of websites and policy documents that will only create more confusion in an industry beset by a lack of clarity. This is why many teachers are now saying that after years spent doing OBE paperwork, they will now rather leave the profession than learn a new bureaucratic language. The pending implementation of CAPS simply confirms that our centralised education system is choking in paper and bloated and inefficient officialdom.

All of this confirms the fact that our educational structure is a key part of the problem and, therefore, no matter what solutions are proposed and attempted within that structure, unless the structure itself changes, our miseducation will ultimately help bring our country to its knees.

Instead, our education requires a radical break with the failures of the past two decades.

When an institution fails at a rate of 90 percent, you do not tweak that institution. You dismantle that institution and replace it with an entirely new model.

Like the Department of Agriculture, our Department of Education is so moribund and corrupt that the only feasible way forward is to gut it completely. It is only because the Department has a captive market (which it retains by failing to educate future parents) that it still exists.
Government should shut the department down, and privatize or close every single government school in the country.

It should hand part of its budget to schools that are working or improving in the form of subsidies; and the rest of its budget should go to parents in the form of fee credits so that they may attend private schools of their choice and means.

Competitors to the successful IEB (Independent Examinations Board) should be incentivized and schools should be able to choose from the resulting competitors within the educational standards and examinations market in order to craft their own curriculum and assessments.

Government involvement should be reduced to the bare minimum: their only function being to re-create Umalusi in the form of a public/private regulatory board consisting of academics, teachers, mayors, premiers, business leaders, and religious representatives that certifies examination bodies and sets subsidy parameters. This body will play no direct role in the formation of curriculum – this role will fall to the schools alone. Schools will also be free to manage their own finances.

Schools which show success or improvements in their certified results in core subjects will receive subsidies. Schools that do not will gradually have their funding cut. They may still be able to run on school fees, but if their governing bodies do not lead adequately, such schools must be held accountable and allowed to fail.

Much of our education would initially collapse but very quickly governing bodies and parents, knowing that they are the masters of their own destiny, will help to revive our education apart from our failing government.

Even now, our successful schools are only those schools where governing bodies and principals have already taken ownership and initiative to educate over and beyond confusing government ‘assistance’. By removing the government control, weak schools will either bow to the inevitable or thrive in an empowerment that will open horizons beyond current government stagnation.

With the rapid reduction of bureaucracy, the teaching profession will gradually become more attractive to skilled graduates, whilst decentralisation will also cut back the power of leviathan teaching unions who will lose the benefit of negotiating with one massive employer.

Although any government approach to our education crisis must remain unable to solve the basic social and cultural problems at the root of our failings, a localised system would at least lend schools and communities the freedom and resources to help themselves, thus giving at the very least hope to situations which are currently hopeless.