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Addressing Education in South Africa: Q & A with Mandla Mthembu

Education is the foundation of a nation’s economic progress and social development. Unfortunately, the education system in South Africa has not been able to keep up and deliver outcomes necessary to propel the country towards a transition from third world status. The reasons are far reaching, but as a nation we need to look forward and start taking meaningful action if we are going to unlock the potential of our rich cultural heritage, natural resources, collective abilities, and skills.

Mandla Mthembu, Chief Operating Officer of Accelerated Education Enterprises, is confident that South Africa can successfully address the challenges of education. However, he adds that it will take collective commitment and believes that the Christian community needs to play a proactive role.

What needs to be done to improve SA education?
That is a very broad question. Let us start by highlighting just a few of the current hurdles that hold us back.

  • Legislative framework
    The first step towards creating conditions for different pathways to access quality education is the need for a legislative framework that allows for the existence of independent schools following their own philosophy, faith, ethos, and religion. The SA Constitution states that all persons, including parents, have “the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion”. The Constitution protects the rights of members of “cultural, religious, and linguistic communities to practice their culture and religion”. Parents have the right to choose schools that appropriately give expression to their cultural and religious beliefs. Current legislation and government policies are not in sync with these basic freedoms and rights, as enshrined in our Constitution.
  • Access to education
    One of the most pressing issues in South African education is ensuring equitable access for all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. In 2021, attendance of of early childhood development (ECD) facilities was 18,1% in the poorest income group and almost tripled to 60,3% for the highest income group. There are many contributing factors, but the harsh reality is that way too many children are just not accessing quality education from a very young age.
  • Quality education
    Education delivery needs to be seen as an ecosystem made up of curricula, teacher training and development, adequate learning, teaching support materials, facilities, assessment vehicles, and parental involvement, to name but a few. We need a collaborative (private and public) strategy to address these issues. As Christians, we need to acknowledge and take our role as parents very seriously. Likewise, the Church should be giving serious consideration to the responsibility it has in education. We have been instructed by God to train up our children in the way they should go so that even when they are old, they will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).


What is the curriculum situation and what can be done to improve it?
In South Africa, we follow the National Curriculum Statement (which has been translated into National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, known as the CAPS “syllabus”). This leads to the attainment of the national senior certificate/matric. It is a comprehensive policy that aims to ensure that children acquire knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. It promotes learning in local contexts while being sensitive to global imperatives. While CAPS is a sound curriculum, its implementation in relation to minimum standards for achieving a pass remains the lowest in the world. With regards to Christian education, the Constitution provides for religious observances only. No one is teaching our children about the truth of the Word of God through subjects like biblical studies. They are not receiving any guidance with regards to their salvation and spiritual life. I am not saying that there are no Christians in our schools doing a good job of teaching children, but the curriculum does not provide for true Christian education.

What is true Christian education?
Christian education integrates faith and values into the academic curriculum and the overall educational experience. It ensures that over and above imparting knowledge, it also nurtures the spiritual, moral, and ethical development of students in accordance with biblical principles. Faith and learning are integrated in every subject, and character development is emphasised at every opportunity. The environment also creates opportunity for prayer, worship, reflection, and guidance in developing a relationship with God. 

Some might ask if Christian education keeps children trapped in an old-fashioned system that does not prepare them for the challenges of the real world? 
Like any successful system of education or curriculum, academic excellence is essential. Christian education can and does deliver academically rigorous outcomes. Emphasis must be on relevant content and the development of skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. Innovative, excellent education can certainly be achieved whilst still teaching children the age-old biblical principles of a life lived in Christ and all the potential that holds. 

Do true Christian schools exist? Is there a true Christian curriculum being used?
Yes, they do exist using a variety of alternative curriculum programmes. The Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.) curriculum is one of the major Christian curriculum programmes on offer in South Africa. There are also organisations of Christian schools that offer education underpinned by Christian values.

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