Education policy and the current crisis in South African schooling

In a presentation held under the auspices of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Rhodes University Dr Yusuf Sayed of the University of Sussex provided a critical review of education policy making in South Africa since 1994, unpacking the notion of the education crisis and challenging common sense assumptions related to it.

Dr Sayed has conducted extensive research into education policy formulation and implementation as it relates to concerns of equity, social justice, and transformation in various countries across the globe. A research associate of the ISER, he was in Grahamstown working with the ISER director Professor Robert Van Niekerk to develop an education policy research programme on schooling and inequality.

In reflecting on the scope and content of education policies, Dr Sayed’s presentation considered the extent to which the policies since 1994 address or exacerbate the current crisis in schooling. He paid particular attention to key contested education policy moments, including the governance of schooling and teacher education policy choices.

In considering the ways the education crisis in South Africa has been constructed, Dr Sayed highlighted an increase in a discourse of division, which forms negative public perceptions; expectations of progress are not being fulfilled as the system is not seen to be delivering, and shifts in public discourse to a focus on “quick wins, value for money, and an impatient electorate” all contribute to the negative perceptions of education in the country. But, given that South Africa is spending about 20 percent of its budget on education (in line with international fiscal norms), questioning a return on the expenditure is to be expected.

In analysing South African education policy, Dr Sayed analysed 160 policy texts that were produced between 1994 and 2007, dividing them into four periods: authorising values and principles from 1994 to 1999, delivery from 1999 to 2004, measuring impact from 2004 to 2009, and performance monitoring (or performativity) from 2009 to the present. “In considering the major shifts between these different periods, one can see a trend toward performance monitoring, which is evident in the policy discourse,” he said. The increase in large-scale national assessment surveys in the country are suggestive of this: in the period between 1994 and 1999 there were five, and today there are 24.

Apart from being expensive these constant assessments also have negative effects on the management of education policy. “The mania of testing tells you what is wrong but does not reach the school level to actively promote effective teaching and learning”, Dr Sayed said. He stated that while testing is important, “it is wrong to believe that more testing will somehow improve quality”.

While the South African Schools Act of 1996 attempted to provide a “uniform system for the organisation, governance and funding of schools, amend and repeal certain laws relating to schools and provide for matters connected therewith”, for Dr Sayed it has proved ineffective on various levels. “Effectively what you had were different kinds of choices being made by government which weren’t clearly thought out,” said Dr Sayed, adding that that in effect, the result was to cement the existing two-tier school system, to the detriment of thousands of South African school children. He pointed out that too much policy attention had been placed on the ex-Model C schools which mainly serve middle class children.

Dr Sayed pointed out that high levels of teacher absenteeism, poor percentages of extended writing exercises and poor teacher knowledge in numeracy are “worrying factors” in an education system that ranks poorly on the global scale, however while the assessment results paint a depressing picture, in general, learner performance today is not marginally worse than it was in 1994. 

Dr Sayed suggested options to change the policies of school governances to make the system more equitable and fair, which included sharing teachers across schools, top slicing school fees for redress purposes, and more actively developing robust forms of school partnerships betweens schools in wealthy neighbourhoods and those serving marginalised communities. However, he stated that such efforts must be coordinated and implemented at the local level.

In conclusion, Dr Sayed emphasised that efforts at education reform need to deal with “the triangle of eradicating education poverty, reducing and eventually eliminating inequality and focusing attention on skills and capacity development in the most marginalised communities”.

Dr Yusuf Sayed is a Reader in International Education at the University of Sussex and attached as a Research Associate at the ISER. Previously Dr Sayed was Senior Policy Analyst at the EFA Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO, Team Leader for Education and Skills, the Department for International Development UK, and Head of Department of Comparative Education at the University of the Western Cape.

Story by Sarah-Jane Bradfield


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