Dr. Katlego Sebogodi is a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg. He is a 31-year-old young man from the North West Province’s Dinokana village, which is close to Zeerust, He holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics and is enthusiastic about learning and teaching the topic. Dr. Sebogodi founded the non-profit company Mathsciematics to help students in grades 7 through 11 with Mathematics and Science. He also previously taught introductory university math lectures, which he made available online.

I sat across my laptop waiting for him to “hop on the call”; everything has gone digital so, over a Zoom call, we set out to explore the South African school system and its efficiency in providing the right to basic education to South African children.

Tell me a little about your teaching career, from being a high school teacher and now a lecturer at one of the best universities in South Africa.

I started volunteering as a teacher at a school called S.J Kgobokwe in Mafikeng while I was studying at the North West University formerly and still popularly known as Unibo. Later on, as I completed my honours and my masters, I got my first job teaching at St Michael’s private school and also lectured at North West University. In 2017 I taught for a short while at a public high school back home, Ramotshere High School, where I would later leave to start lecturing at Sol Plaatje University. I began working at the University of Johannesburg near the end of 2018.

Section 29 of the South African Constitution states that everyone has the right to basic education, which effectively obligates the state to ensure every child has access to this education. In your experience, do you think the system has been successful in fulfilling its role to provide basic education to all South African children?

While the South African schooling system may not be the best in the world, it certainly has reasonably succeeded in making education available for South African Children. However, schools in poorer communities are mostly characterized by deteriorating infrastructure, crammed classrooms, and generally subpar educational results; while those in middle and upper-class communities are in somewhat better conditions. Furthermore, there are a large number of children who drop out of the system somewhere between grades 1 and 12 for numerous reasons and so I believe that there is an enormous room for improvement that the system has to cover before we can regard it as being completely successful in fulfilling its role.

What do you think are the significant shortfalls of the system?
The biggest shortfall in my view is the quality coupled with equality. In my experience with public high schools mostly it seems that the focus tends to be on getting children out of high school rather than ensuring that they come out as high-functioning members of society, learners are essentially forced through the system to ensure that they leave the schools. This is characterized by an intense focus on matriculants, ensuring good and commendable pass rates for the schools while neglecting lower grades. The standards have been universally dropped to the point where the recent uproar over the 30% pass mark seems reasonable. Learners who score 30% in the majority of their disciplines would not be admitted to a higher education institution. The department justifies this by stating that not all learners are expected to qualify for Higher Education admission, and this is contradictory to the reality that most jobs require a tertiary education;in addition, the system does not successfully produce young people who are independent, critical, creative, and innovative thinkers with the required capabilities to solve life problems straight out of high school. This is tied to inequality in that these factors are most prevalent in schools situated in rural and township areas.

Would you say that most learners’ quality of education allows for a smooth transition to the tertiary level?
The transition facilitated by the given quality of education is certainly not smooth. It is worth noting that a culture of reading and learning is important in nurturing the motivational push to learn. However, because most learners from South African townships and rural areas come from families affected by poverty, hunger, and parents with little or no education themselves, this culture is lacking. When these learners are put in an environment where self-motivation is crucial, they are more likely to fail, that is beside the fact that many of these learners do not make it to university, to begin with, due to the unavailability of fees. The transition is not smooth because there is a hole in the bridge between basic and tertiary education that the 22% of students who fail their matric fall through. While a few learners do rewrite their matric, given the unemployment rate in the country it is not hard to guess where a majority of those learners end up.

What do you think the government can do to improve the system?
Firstly, all-around repair of basic infrastructure, and construction of libraries to create appropriate learning conditions in schools that need them. Secondly, although we have not touched on the contribution of teachers on the matter, it is without a doubt that they play a major role in the education of children, and thus conducting subject-specific competency tests for all teachers and providing intensive teacher training should be considered. This, in turn, will empower teachers with better conceptual understanding and subject matter expertise to create classrooms where effective teaching and learning may occur, resulting in successful school results even in disadvantaged communities. Schools also need to appoint mandatory school counsellors/guidance counsellors. This crucial role is often taken on by the Life Orientation teacher in schools and I believe there is a need to standardize this in all schools as children are often affected by issues that are a hindrance to their education and this will help alleviate that. Nurturing a culture of problem-solving and critical thinking rather than encouraging average passing would also improve the system significantly.

Would you say that parents share the responsibility for the shortcomings of the school system?
It is without a doubt that parents have a role in the education of their children as such the South African Schools Act of 1996 requires all children between the ages of 7 and 15 to attend school and parents are obligated to ensure that this happens. This crucial involvement is also apparent from the requirement for parents to be part of the School Governing Body (SGB). Issues such as equality and the lack of resources in schools are beyond parents; however, parents need to be involved in their children’s education as this serves as motivation to the learners and keeps them accountable. In that light, parents who do not pay attention to their children’s studies play a part in the shortfalls of the system.

What would you say to a learner who has lost hope in education as a key to success and is discouraged by the fact that unemployment rates are so high, yet most graduates are sitting at home with qualifications and believes that the system is broken beyond repair?
I would propose to them that education is not the key to success; it is rather a solid foundation upon which one can build. I encourage learners who see that the current system’s setup does not effectively nurture their growth to go the extra mile for themselves, attend extra classes, and participate in activities that stimulate their ability to innovate and solve problems such as science expos and debates. This may seem like placing the responsibility of improving the system on learners themselves, however I believe that we all need to play our part. Developing these skills will allow such learners to be future job creation agents in our communities. This is merely a means of working with what we have as the main responsibility for quality and equal education lies with the South African government and the education system that they have put in place.

What do you think members of the public can do to help improve the school system?
I implore anyone who has resources that could help learners to reach out to programs that can put them to good use. Promoting a culture of learning in communities could look like having community mathematics competitions and spelling bee competitions. Although it may seem insignificant, the encouragement it will provide to students is significant and will assist foster a supportive environment in which students may learn. At Mathsciematics we aim to facilitate this positive environment and have a number of these activities lined up throughout the year. By putting efforts together in communities, we may not change the entire education system, but we can make little positive impacts that will compound over time.