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Claim 90% of SA schools dysfunctional is wrong – real number is 75%

The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools declared that close to 90 percent of the country’s schools were “dysfunctional”, sparking demands for a parliamentary debate. Thorough research confirms the real number is high but not as high as reported – 75%.

Researched by Ntombi Dyosop

Updated 14.11.12 - James Myburgh, the publisher of, emailed Africa Check last week pointing out research which indicates that in fact around 75% of schools can be judged dysfunctional when assessed against clearly set out standards.

We have updated the headline of this article and include details on the article Myburgh mentions in the report, and in the box below it.

SA President Jacob Zuma faced a fierce backlash from the opposition this week after his office announced that the president had been invited to be one of the 10 champions of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Education First Initiative.

The announcement of Zuma’s appointment came days after the Paul Colditz, head of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS), said in interviews with journalists that “close to 90 percent of schools” in the country were “dysfunctional”.

Opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) said in a statement that Zuma is not fit to serve on the panel because he has overseen a “crumbling education system”, characterised by failures to deliver on the right to basic education.

And in a separate statement, Annette Lovemore, DA shadow Deputy Minister of Basic Education, called for a debate in parliament on the FEDSAS claim.

“The only value President Zuma could possibly add to the education panel is to show the rest of the world how not to manage their education systems,” she said.

Are the critics of the schools record right?

It is widely acknowledged that there are problems in the education sector. Even the government admits it could do better. But its critics says the government fails to acknowledge the scale of the problem.

According to Colditz, speaking to the Times, the number of “dysfunctional” schools varies from province to province but numbers almost nine out of ten across the country as a whole. “You will find such schools in all provinces, though there certainly are fewer in the better-functioning provincial systems such as those of Gauteng and Western Cape,” said the head of FEDSAS, an avowedly apolitical professional body.

Graeme Bloch, a specialist in education who used to work for the Development Bank of Southern Africa, agrees that the situation is serious and has been for many years, but offers a markedly lower figure for the number of non-functioning schools.

“Education in South Africa is shown to be in crisis. Seventy percent of our schools are not functioning”, he told reporters in 2008.

And while he thinks there has been a slow improvement in standards since then, as people have got more worried and politicians more careful, this has not changed the basic outcome. “The world is moving on without us, so the context changes, but I think the number of dysfunctional schools is still about 70%,” he told Africa Check.

By contrast, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) dismisses such analysis and insists that, on its measures, the majority of schools in all provinces have either “good” or “acceptable” systems in place.

How do they measure performance?

So how are these different bodies, and experts, measure performance? The answer is, all a little differently.

Deputy Executive Officer of FEDSAS Jaco Deacon told Africa Check the organisation focuses on six criteria focused primarily on school leadership and teacher performance. The six criteria he named are:

  • Leadership – The leadership qualities of the principal
  • Commitment – Are the educators committed?
  • Work ethic – When the bell rings “does the educator go to class immediately and start teaching?”
  • Discipline – Shown by the staff, learners and parents
  • Governance – The governance and management of the school
  • Involvement – Parental involvement in the education of their children

“If we apply this criteria to the 24,255 schools in the country, close to 90 percent of schools are dysfunctional”, he said.

The Department of Basic Education, meanwhile, measures functionality of schools more narrowly, simply gauging the attendance levels of staff and learners. “Contrary to popular belief, the matric pass rate on its own is not a good measure of academic achievement in the schooling system, nor was the pass rate ever designed for this,” it says on its website.

On this measure, schools achieving 0-49 percent of the necessary attendance levels are judged to be “unacceptable”, those with attendance levels of 50-69 percent seen as “meeting minimum requirements, institutions achieving 70-84 percent attendance are declared “good” and those hitting 85-100 percent attendance are qualified as “outstanding”.

According to the DBE, the results for 2011/12 show “schools in all provinces have good systems in place to manage class attendance by teachers with the exception of Eastern Cape and North West where the systems are acceptable”.

By contrast with the other two approaches, Bloch, who agreed that the criteria FEDSAS use are important factors in school performance, told Africa Check the criteria that he uses includes a focus on the learners’ reading and counting ability as measured in the Annual National Assessments (ANA).

ANA is the government’s intervention to strengthen literacy and numeracy in South African primary schools, testing all learners in public schools in grades 2 to 7 and focusing on the levels of learner performance.


While it is clear from all surveys the performance of many schools around the country is poor, the claim by the head of FEDSAS in a series of media interviews, and again asserted to Africa Check, that 90% of schools are dysfunctional appears to be an exaggeration.

The most solid research we have seen is that sent to us following the first publication of this article, and set out in more detail below. It suggests that around 75% of South Africa’s schools can be judged dysfunctional, when assessed against standards in comparable countries.

Edited by Ruth Becker.

The research set out in the article suggests that around 75% of South Africa's schools can be judged dysfunctional, when assessed against standards in comparable countries.

The article from Stellenbosch  University researcher Nicholas Spaull gives a thorough review of current information about the South African education system, looking at public expenditure, access to education and quality.

The measures used to assess quality are clearly outlined and range from the quality of school management and learning culture, to teacher knowledge, performance levels in matric and drop out rates.

The research indicates that the FEDSAS figure is indeed too high, but that standards in three quarters of SA schools are too low.

Updated 14.11.12

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