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The Main Problems Of The South African Education System

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The South African education system has experience many changes after the 1994 democratic elections in efforts to undo and redress past imbalances that dominated the schooling system during the reign of the apartheid government. These changes had a significant impact on learners and teachers as the main goal of the new government was transformation and ensuring equal access into a system that excluded the majority of the population based on race. This essay will attempt to provide a brief definition of what the term curriculum means based on research. In addition to this, the cycles of curricular reform and change will also be discussed with a focus on how historic, global as well as national factors prompted these changes. Furthermore, some of the key contextual, school and pedagogical influences will also be described while identifying key intended and unintended consequences on the major stakeholders. Lastly, the author’s own opinion will be highlighted as to provide insight as to how the author would engage with the current curriculum against the background of the circumstances faced in South African schools.

Curriculum refers to the policy framework that includes the knowledge and information that is required for learners to learn during their years of schooling. It serves as a guideline for educators to specifically teach selected content as outlined in the policy. Moreover, a curriculum outlines the specific time-frames that learners are expected to learn this content and also what resources and support is necessary for teachers and learners to effectively engage in the teaching and learning process. According to Adu and Ngibe (2014, p, 983), “a curriculum is the offering of socially valued knowledge, skills and attitudes made available to students through a variety of arrangements during the time they are at school. This means that a curriculum requires learners to be able to acquire a certain level of intellectual capabilities, physical proficiencies and morals during their schooling years.

Moreover, curriculum relates to the strategies and techniques that teachers utilize to determine the competence of learners based on the assessment activities that learners complete as outlined in the curriculum policy guidelines. This means that teachers and learners are provided with an outline “which includes the learning standards or learning objectives they are expected to meet, the units and lessons that teachers teach, the assignments and projects given to students; the books; materials, videos, presentations and readings used in the course, and the tests, assessments, and other methods used to evaluate student learning” (Adu and Ngibe, 2014, p, 985). These, in my view, are the core elements that give a definition of what the term curriculum is.

It is no secret that the South African education system has undergone many changes after the dawn of democracy in 1994, particularly relating to curriculum reform and review. These changes in the education system were specifically aimed at redressing past imbalances and ensuring equal access to all South Africans that is in need of education. Before the official change took place, the South African education system was still seeing traces of Christian National Education and Bantu Education until the new policy changes took effect in 1997 with the introduction of Curriculum 2005 (C2005). Following this, the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) was introduced in 2002, the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) in 2007 and the current educational policy guidelines dubbed the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) which was introduced in 2012 (Adu and Ngibe, 2014).

According to Naidoo & Muthukrishna (2014, p, 272) “the RNCS retained learner-centeredness and curriculum integration as methodologies of practice; as is the case with the new Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement”. This means that the shift from a teacher-centered approach, as was the case under the apartheid government education system, was at the heart of each policy review and reform whilst at the same time ensuring effective implementation of the policy that speaks to the needs of the individual learner. All these changes and reforms that South African teachers and learners experienced, were all part of the new government’s plans in ensuring that curriculum development and change is based on the fundamental values as contained in the Constitution of South Africa.

The curriculum changes that occurred in the South African education system between 1994 and 2019, was heavily dominated by factors aimed at social transformation, redress, inclusion, consolidation and national reconciliation. One of the key historical factors that prompted curricular change and reform was the need to break away from a system that excluded the majority of learners based on race. This stance is shared in a plethora of research that unequivocally states that “post-1994 education is predicated on the principle of equality of opportunity in relation to provision, access and outcomes” (Badat & Sayed, 2014, p, 128). In this regard, changes in the South African education system after 1994, sought to remedy discrimination based on race, dismantle inequality in education that stemmed from apartheid, include cultural roots that were disregarded, demolish a curricula that promoted the ideals and values of one culture, do away with the language policy that was irrelevant, ravage the medium of instruction that was foreign and the general deterioration in the culture of teaching and learning (Legodi, 2001). This was particularly emphasized with the implementation of Curriculum 2005 in 1997.

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Curriculum reform policies in South Africa have also seen many remnants of global influence. One key notable aspect of curriculum reform policies is how it can directly be traced to policies in developed countries in the North (Naidoo & Muthukrishna, 2014). Jansen (1998) notes how the outcomes-based education approach that underpins curriculum implementation in South Africa, originates from the practices followed in Australia and New Zealand. This global factor speaks directly to the notion of South Africa’s curriculum reform policies that are imported as oppose to home-grown. In addition to this, the post-1994 curriculum changes and reform was aimed at uniting and reconciling a nation that was hideously divided under apartheid and promoting the values of dignity, respect, inclusion, access as proclaimed in the Constitution. The implementation of C2005 was intended to “improve the quality of learning utilizing a learner-centered approach with the principle of curriculum integration” (Naidoo & Muthukrishna, 2014, p, 272). All the changes to the curriculum that followed were based on these fundamental principles.

Furthermore, the particular circumstances during which these curricular changes occurred cannot be ignored. After the 1994 election, the education system was immediately transformed to adopt an outcomes-based approach that focused on learner-centeredness as opposed to the apartheid system that was content-based and teacher-centered (Department of Education, 2001). The policy changes that followed relating to the Revised National Curriculum Statement, the National Curriculum Statement and the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, were all directed at strengthening this approach. Transformation in schools was also part of the change process as access, opportunity, redress, equity and democratic governance was emphasized under the new government. This opened the doors for community involvement and public participation in the education system. With regard to pedagogical factors, curriculum change had significant benefits for teachers as they could take on the role of facilitator giving them more autonomy to adapt and adopt teaching strategies that cater and suit the needs of the learners. Learners were also afforded to take charge of their own learning with guidance from the teacher.

The role of teachers in ensuring that the current curriculum is effectively and successfully implemented is crucial to the quality of learning and teaching in the South African schooling system. As a result of this, teachers always need to be reminded that they are the driving force behind the future prospects of learners in the schooling system. The National Curriculum Statement compels teachers to be flexible in their teaching and therefore the emphasis of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement demands a learner-centered approach to enable learners to be in charge of their own learning. It is against this background that I would always allow the underlying principles of the NCS to guide and inform my teaching as I would always tap into the knowledge that learners bring into the classroom as teachers need to “guide learners to generate their own individual understandings of different forms of knowledge” (Naidoo & Muthukrishna, 2014, p, 276). In this regard, I would not tell learners what they can do with the newly acquired knowledge, but how they can apply it in their daily lives.

It is evident that South African classrooms are diversified and this means that teachers should always strive to cater for the overall needs of all their learners “irrespective of their socio-economic background, race, gender, physical ability or intellectual ability” (Department of Education, 2011, p, 4). As a novice teacher I would always strive to be constantly aware of this in my teaching and at the same time inculcating values of respect and tolerance in my learners. This approach, I believe, will help foster ideals that will assist in creating a learning environment in which learners and teacher work together in harmony to meet prescribed educational objectives. It is therefore imperative to be conscious of your own cultural and beliefs systems while understanding that each individual learner is different due to their social, economic and political background (Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlinson-Clarke, 2014).

The issue of learner and teacher discipline cannot be divorced from the discussion on implementing the curriculum successfully, especially in the South African context where violence and intolerance plague our communities. With the banning of corporal punishment, teachers are generally inclined to believe that the only way to maintain authority is by punishing inappropriate behaviour. This approach is particularly applied by old hand experienced teachers that “are well-acquainted with the authoritarian, teacher-centred model of classroom management” (Hansen, 1979, p, 42). In my opinion, the best line of attack to avert disruptive behaviour in the classroom would be to identify, with the help of the learners, what they regard as deplorable behaviour and how to deal with it. This will allow learners to feel that they are part of the order and structure of their classroom and at the same time establish a good and healthy relationship between teacher and learner. Moreover, by implementing a system of following a prescribed set of rules might also help in fostering ideals of morally acceptable behaviour within the learners which they will carry throughout their academic and social lives.

Furthermore, it is astute to be aware of the role of technology in the learning and teaching process, particularly in the wake of the technological revolution that has inundated education globally. As a novice teacher I would always try to incorporate technology in my lessons, provided that the school has the technological resources to do so. For example, playing a short video clip that relates to the topic to be covered can stimulate learner’s thought processes. Learners can also be taught basic computer skills if there is a computer laboratory at the school. This training, in my view, will assist them in acquiring the necessary skills required by the labour market upon completion of their schooling careers as this is an industry requirement, irrespective of which career path learners choose.

The current curriculum that is enacted in South Africa has done more harm than good as found in the literature on curriculum and education after the advent of democracy in 1994. This means that unless drastic measures are implemented to curb further deterioration of the education system, low levels of literacy and numeracy will continue to persist.

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The Main Problems Of The South African Education System. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from
“The Main Problems Of The South African Education System.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022,
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The Main Problems Of The South African Education System [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2023 Mar 30]. Available from:
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