12.10.2009 -

Interview with South Africa’s Duncan Hindle, chairperson of UNESCO’s Education Commission


Duncan Hindle, a former teacher, is Director-General of South Africa’s Department of Education and currently chairperson of the Education Commission at UNESCO’s General Conference which determines the policies, main lines of work, programme and budget in Education for 2010-2011.

Why did you chose education as a career?

Teaching is a family tradition - my mother was a teacher. I started out as a maths teacher first in secondary school, then in primary school, then in university doing teacher training so I spanned the whole sector. That was in the late 1980s and early 1990s which was a volatile time in South Africa. I got involved setting up the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union the first ever non-racial teachers’ union. It’s still the largest teachers’ union in South Africa. In 1995, soon after democracy, I became its president. When I joined the government in 1996 I moved to the other side of the negotiating table.

What was it like to be in the first democratic government in South Africa?

It was an exciting, dynamic, chaotic period and a time of profound change. We worked on building a new national identity based on human rights, universal values and the idea that we all belonged to a common nation.

Could you describe the challenges to education in this early post-apartheid period?

The first huge challenge was building a single national education system from a multiplicity of departments, formerly organised along regional and ethnic lines, and drawing up a common set of conditions of service for teachers. Designing a new national curriculum was another challenge. It had a strong underpinning of human rights and respect for diversity, essential in a multi-cultural country with 11 official languages and a history of apartheid.

What about issues like access and quality?

Improving access was a major task. There were huge numbers out of school, and many dropping out. We had to urgently improve access and retention rates and introduce equity measures, while at the same time promoting integration of schools.  Recently, we have given a necessary push to quality, driven by international reports like TIMSS and PIRLS, and introduced an ambitious, outcomes-based curriculum. However, it requires a context of well-trained teachers and resources, both of which are still lacking in South Africa.

How is South Africa dealing with inequalities?

According to the UNDP, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. This is reflected in the very high degree of differentiation between schools. Our top schools - formerly white and now integrated - are among the best in the world, but we have a huge number of underperforming schools, struggling with few resources. Nevertheless, some very poor schools achieve remarkable results. They are the “stars” of our system.

We have a sliding scale of subsidies, so wealthier schools get a very small amount of government financing and poorer schools, get a much larger share. The rationale is “Support the poor and let the rich look after themselves,” and this has enabled us to retain over 97 percent of students in our public schools.

How is the school system dealing with the HIV pandemic?

A comprehensive HIV prevention education is integrated into the Life Skills programme, which is a compulsory part of the curriculum. There has been a small but encouraging decline in new infections among 18- to 24-year-olds, which is probably due to both education and public health campaigns. More disappointing is the infection rate among teachers which was 12.7 per cent in 2007. You would expect teachers to be the leaders in this matter. In addition, death and morbidity among teachers adversely affects the education system. No one can argue that they don’t know the risks, it just doesn’t translate into behaviour change.


School violence is a particular problem…

We need to recognise that South Africa is, sadly, a violent society so schools are not exempt from this. In addition, violence is often associated with alcohol and drug abuse. For the schools most affected, mainly urban working-class schools, we have provided a security infrastructure to protect the students. However if you don’t have community ownership of a school, no amount of security will prevent vandalism and violence.

How can you instil a sense of ownership of education?

This is the goal of an ongoing, grassroots campaign. We appeal to people to get involved in their children’s schooling. As our President says, education is not the responsibility of the department or even of the government: it is the responsibility of society. Financing, appointment of teachers, etc - all that can be done at school level. The mechanism for democratic school governance and participation is in place.


What is South Africa’s involvement with UNESCO?

South Africa only rejoined UNESCO in 1994 and we are gradually increasing our involvement. We have served for the past two terms on UNESCO’s Executive Board. The UNESCO National Commission is very active and we have 10 UNESCO Chairs in South Africa. We have participated in all the recent international conferences convened by UNESCO. We also participated in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality under the auspices of UNESCO-IIEP. So we are involved at a number of levels and look forward to further increasing this presence.

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