For South Africa 1993 was a year of teacher strikes, violence and pupil boycotts. But for two schools, located on the same street in Soweto, the year could not have been more different. Hardly any teaching took place at one, and not a single day of learning was lost at the other.
Researchers for the Improving Education Quality Project (a Durban-based organisation investigating teaching standards around the country) found that though both schools had to contend with exactly the same social and economic pressures, the difference in their performance lay in the quality and motivation of the senior teachers.
The project's director, Dr Jonathan Jansen, claims that most of the problems African schools face could be improved overnight. "I have visited schools where teachers do nothing but sit in the sun all day," he says. "Standards could be radically raised, if pupils and teachers merely spent longer in the classroom. "
Demotivated teachers and pupils is just one problem South Africa's first democratic government faces as it sets about reconstructing a system that is responsible for 12 million students and more than 27,500 educational institutions.
Education is woefully inadequate. The deliberate denial of quality education for black people, whose role under apartheid was to be no more than "hewers of wood and bearers of water," deprived millions of life chances and the country of skilled people.
Apartheid has left over a third of the country's adult population illiterate. Only 40.5 per cent of South Africa's workers have some secondary schooling, less than 16 per cent have finished school, and only 8.4 per cent have a diploma or a degree. The system is fragmented, of low quality and racially and geographically skewed.
The African National Congress-led government has given education top priority. Last month its White Paper, Education and Training in a Democratic South Africa - First Steps to Develop A New System, outlined policies to transform the system. The right of all South Africans to schooling is being enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and education and training is one of the major policy thrusts in the government's ambitious blueprint for the future - the Reconstruction and Development Programme.
In the next five years the government plans to create an efficient, integrated, democratic, non-racist and non-sexist system that will offer equal opportunities to all South Africans from the cradle to the grave.
At the heart of the new system is the provision of 10 years of free and compulsory education and the promise to improve overall standards. Schools that became sites of the struggle against apartheid after the Soweto riots in 1976 will be transformed from "battlegrounds into places of learning". According to the government's White Paper funding will be equalised between the races, new schools built and existing ones upgraded. It is intended that curricula will be transformed, teachers better trained, language policies changed and institutions democratically run. Pre-primary and adult educational opportunities will be expanded, and special attention will be given to girls and women and the disabled, whose needs have been totally neglected.
This new commitment is reflected in the country's 1994-95 budget. R29. 2 billion (Pounds 6 billion) has been allocated to national education, an increase of 11.5 per cent over the previous year, and 21.6 per cent of the country's total budget.
Although this makes South Africa one of the highest spenders on education in the world in terms of overall percentage of the country's budget 82 per cent of the total will be spent on staffing. This means that funds for improving black education have to be found from the remaining 18 per cent.
According to education minister Professor Sibusiso Bengu the 1994-95 budget is very constraining: "It makes our lives impossible. We are in government but we work with the budget of apartheid." In the past vastly disproportionate amounts of the budget were channelled to the white education sector. Per capita spending is still 2.5 times greater for whites than Africans.
To have any hope of turning good intentions into reality it has been necessary for Professor Bengu to set about restructuring and rationalising his civil service. To this end 19 ethnically-based education departments are being dissolved and brought under a single national ministry. This will be responsible for national policy, standards, planning and funding, and managing higher education.
Aside from the new national department, education departments in South Africa's nine provinces are also being established. They will be free to develop a system that responds to regional needs in coordination with central government.
But the government's absolute priority is introducing 10 years of free and compulsory general education that will include a new pre-school reception year.
The government already pays for the schooling of most South African children, so the emphasis on "free" is purely political. What will be new, however, is making the 10 years compulsory. But as the government does not yet have the necessary infrastructure to enforce compulsory schooling, it is starting off by introducing a first-compulsory year. In 1995 all six-year-olds will have to go to school. The fact that nobody knows exactly how many six-year-olds there are in the country will make the implementation of this policy difficult.
The problem is enormous. It is estimated that around 1.8 million children aged between six and 18 years are not currently in school.
Among those children who do, the drop-out rate is very high. Around 30 per cent of African children drop out of primary schools and just over 40 per cent manage to matriculate. This is compared to 98 per cent of whites, 95 per cent of Indians and 86 per cent of coloureds.
Replacing the current Matriculation Certificate, awarded at the end of 12 years of formal schooling, will be a three-year senior secondary stage leading to a Further Education Certificate. This post-compulsory phase will not be free: means testing will be introduced and fees charged to children whose families can afford them. Those children who qualify for further schooling but cannot afford it will be subsidised by the state.
The greatest challenge of all is to raise South Africa's teaching standards. Many of South Africa's 300,000 teachers are poorly qualified, and the appalling conditions in which they have to work has left them without motivation or hope.
Getting both children and teachers back into the classroom, as Dr Jansen pointed out, is essential. The government is about to launch a national campaign aimed at restoring the culture and learning at African schools lost during the apartheid years.