Political star to shine on schools
South Africans appointed their first woman education minister as the country celebrated 10 years of democracy last week.
But the "report card" on progress in schools since the liberation election in 1994 was mixed.
The new minister is Naledi Pandor, 50, a well-qualified former teacher and lecturer. She is also a Muslim, a mother of four, and a speaker of four languages. An African National Congress MP since 1994, she is chair of parliament's "upper house" and a rising star in the party.
Her appointment was welcomed by all parties and by the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu), the country's biggest union.
"As a qualified and former practising educator, Pandor has first-hand experience of the education sector and her record in the previous government augurs well," Sadtu said.
The ANC was voted back into power with a 70 per cent majority in the country's third democratic elections last month. Pandor is one of 12 women among President Thabo Mbeki's 28 ministers. Ten of his 21 deputy ministers are also women.
Her predecessor, Kader Asmal, who stepped down after 10 years' Cabinet service, told The TES he hoped to be remembered for "elevating the status of education as an absolute priority", for building confidence among teachers and school governing bodies, pouring resources into poor schools and "changing the ethos of South African education".
"We have moved away from the 'master-race' approach of Afrikaans schools under apartheid and the rigidity of English grammar schools to create an ethos that is based on equality, fairness and openness," he said.
Since the days of apartheid, there have been notable improvements in South Africa's 28,000 schools in terms of equity, access, pass rates and facilities for poor schools - with more than 30,000 new classrooms built in the past four years.
The school-leaving pass rate, considered an indicator of education quality, soared to 73 per cent last year, up from 50 per cent in 1999.
While far more money used to be directed to white than black pupils, funding has now been equalised and additional resources directed towards the poorest schools.
Education receives around 20 per cent of the total budget, or pound;5 billion, a year.
But advances have been countered by teacher shortages in key areas, problems around a new "outcomes-based" curriculum, lack of discipline and violence in many poor schools, and a still serious lack of resources for many of the country's 12 million school pupils.