Rupturing or reinforcing inequality? What we know about the role of education in South Africa

Lecture Theatre Q227 Melbourne Graduate School of Education Kwong Lee Dow Building 234 Queensberry Street Carlton, Victoria 3053

Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy Public Seminar

This seminar explores the relationship between South African education and levels of inequality. One main strand of thought in terms of how education can rupture inequality is Human Capital Theory, which suggests that education makes individuals and economies more productive. This idea currently dominates literature and policy recommendations in South Africa, combining research focused on poor learning attainment in early grades with research analysing labour market outcomes by education level. The underlying argument is that inequality is being reproduced by low-quality schooling, which prevents people from access to and excelling in the labour market. These studies highlight school management and planning, teacher attendance, curriculum coverage and targeted distribution of resources to schools. We call this perspective HCT/school effectiveness.

Other approaches to theorizing how education either reinforces or ruptures inequality focus more on the content of education. Some see educational potential to conscientize individuals and communities to overthrow the existing order, but also blame current education systems for keeping people oppressed, through teaching the knowledge of the ruling elite and using pedagogical practices and institutional cultures/arrangements that perpetuate inequalities. Others argue that education should provide learners with access to bodies of knowledge, but do not make strong claims about how this could rupture inequality. These positions have been important in curriculum debates in South Africa, but are not currently widely profiled in analysis of education and inequality. A third body of research looks at how credentials shape and are shaped by labour markets, suggesting that hiring practices often reflect the screening or signalling role of education: employers select potential employees with the highest possible level of qualifications relative to the potential pool of applicants. Signalling theory states that employers read different attributes in qualifications—for example evidence of intellectual potential, social conformity, or discipline and ability to persevere, relative to other potential job applicants. From the perspective of inequality, what is important in this literature is that the interface between education and the economy via the labour market creates relationships between credentials and work that are far less rational and more complex than what HCT assumes.

We argue that the dominant HCT/school effectiveness argument radically simplifies the complex ways that a range of ‘variables’ in the South African context, intersect or are ‘co-correlated’ and ignores the social determinants of both education and labour market outcomes. The social context of schooling is vastly simplified, and it is assumed that supply will create its own demand in the labour market. This lays the responsibility of rupturing the reproduction of inequality at the hand of individuals—efficient principals and good compliant teachers. Instead, we make two central claims: without disrupting social and economic conditions that reproduce economic relations, it is unlikely that we can substantively improve learning. Second, the small size of—and lack of dynamism in—the labour market and economy seem to be shaping the nature of the education and training system in perverse ways, and undermining the possibility that it will produce educational outcomes that lead to greater levels of equality.