The great divide: policy and practice in our classrooms

Between 1994 and 2007, 160 policy texts were written related to changes in the Department of Education (now known as Basic Education). This has been dubbed as “policy-mania” and one of the symptoms of the “education crises” in this country. This “policy-mania” is ironic given that many of these policies have proven to be ineffective and resulted in a mismatch between practice and policy. This chasm further exacerbates the inequalities we see in our education system where there are flourishing schools for people who can pay fees and poor performing schools for working class parents.

An example of a policy text is the Foundations for Learning , a clear response to the low literacy levels amongst learners in the Foundation Phase (FP). In spite of this policy (released in 2008), further assessments have shown that learners are still failing dismally and the results can be mapped out along socio-economic lines where provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape perform better than Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The Foundations for Learning Campaign was an attempt to support teachers with lesson plans and clear standards and expectations that could be used to pace their teaching in order to ensure that learners reach the necessary literacy levels at the end of the year.

As part of my masters research I interviewed teachers about their experiences of teaching reading in the FP and how policy has affected their practice. The teachers (from Quintile 3 schools teaching Grade 1) shared the challenges they have faced especially in applying this policy. They shared how the haphazard implementation of the policy has been and ineffective in changing their practices thus they remain using their own methods of teaching(which often conflict with curriculum standards).

One of the major challenges is the fraught relationship between district officials and teachers, where monitoring only happens for moderation once or twice a year without consistent support in light of new policies that teachers are expected to make sense of. I site this example as it has been revealing of how a policy that is meant to empower teachers and change practice has widened the gap between performance in schools for the rich and schools for the poor.

The challenge with any policy document is making it meaningful for the context that it should be applied within. Part of this challenge is that policy is written by people who sit in offices with little or no understanding of the complexities in classrooms and schools. International standards from countries such as the United States of America or the United Kingdom are used to set expectations for schools in South Africa. This assumes that practices in more affluent countries will be relevant for the majority of the schools in South Africa that serve the poor. These international standards are assumed to be universal and transferrable from one country to another, but this is not the case. It is crucial to learn from other countries but not at the cost of being context-blind at the reality in many of South Africa’s schools.

The top-down approach to policy making in many of the documents related to education widens the gap between officials on all levels (national, provincial and district levels), which has implications for the relationship between teachers and officials, teachers and parents and learners. Where policy has been ineffective, more policy documents have been written to solve the problem. The complexities of understanding who communicates policy to teachers and how teachers interpret policies for themselves could be where the problem lies. It is assumed that a good policy will be well-received because it is pedagogically and politically sound, but if the reader of the document cannot relate or understand it, then the policy remains ineffective. So if the problem in many of our schools is not the lack of policy (as the numbers above show), what is the real problem?

My experience of working in schools through research and volunteering has shown me that the complex relationship between school cultures and policy-making has been taken for granted. Given the nature of education in a country like South Africa, schools are complex spaces with values and practices that are governed by written and unwritten rules. Practices and expectations are reproduced by teachers and learners and are taken for granted to the point where changing them is unthinkable. Teachers and learners embody some practices that they become unconscious habits. Policies may condemn a practice but if it is a core part of the school’s culture there is often little change.Change is a complex process as it relies on the opportunity for change to take place, often beyond a policy imperative, but a change in mindset where the culture of thinking is challenged.

The unwritten rule that seems to be more pervasive in schools and communities is that it is acceptable to offer working class children an inferior quality of education because of the overwhelming effects of poverty on a child’s education. This is further complicated by the fact that many teachers send their own children to better performing schools (predominantly former Model C schools) where they have different expectations of these schools than the schools they teach in. The focus on political banter and power struggles in the Eastern Cape alone is another example of the complexities of what it means to solve the crises in education. The debacle between the National and Provincial government not only takes away attention from solving the real problems in the education system in this province, but it highlights that the culture of chaos exists not only at provincial level but at district and school level.

The education system is an example of the complexities of social practices that have been entrenched and reproduced over the years. To what extent can policy change the way people think and wish to live in this country? Transformation in education was supposed to ensure transformation in society as the values that underpinned the discourse in the 1990s was one of equality, human rights and social justice, but our education system has become an example of how these values are not being achieved.

The kind of citizenship envisaged based on democratic principles where people can be involved in creating better opportunities for themselves is being compromised if the majority of the young people are poor and unemployable and often marginalised.
Thus, the question still begs, what are the solutions? What will it take for education to be a transformative force in South Africa?

Underpinning the challenges in education are the social inequalities where poverty is a marker for how a learner’s educational experience can be hampered. Without eliminating the gap between the rich and the poor, we will continue having two school systems working independently of each other and reproducing the gap between the rich and the poor. Education should be everyone’s problem because the implications of the current failures in the system will affect all South Africans. Without accountability in government and civic involvement in education we are all complicit in the reproduction of practices that undermine the transformation in South Africa.


Clea said…
Atha, I have been tutoring at Wits this year and am absolutely shocked at the level of English across the board. Even many first language speakers cannot write coherant sentences. Students do not know the first thing about reading and interpreting a text, and do not know how to learn to get better when they see they are failing. Things are seriously rotten.

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