Can a national curriculum reduce inequality? Reflections from South Africa


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Authors: Melanie Ehren, Jacqueline Baxter, Andrew Patterson, Asiyah Hendricks

Educational reforms and curriculum transformation have been a priority in South Africa to redress the injustices of Apartheid. Since the establishment of a democratic government in 1994, a number of  national curricula have been implemented to create a more equitable and homogenous education system. The latest Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS),  progressively introduced between 2012 and 2014, set out the subjects, knowledge content and the methodology of teaching and learning for primary and secondary education across the country. In doing so, the policy aims to ensure an equal knowledge base, acting as a key building block towards a well-functioning equal and inclusive educational system.

Inequality within the system

South Africa has one of the most unequal education systems in the world. The performance gap between schools serving a poor (so called quintile 1-3 schools) versus a wealthy learner population (quintile 4-5 schools) continues to widen. Results from the 2014 Annual National Assessments in Mathematics (grade 3 and 6 combined) shows how, across the country, learning outcomes continue to diverge, despite efforts to standardise learning experiences across the system.

How can we explain these continuing inequalities, and why has a national curriculum for all schools not reduced the performance gap between schools? The question is relevant for other countries with high inequalities too; a national curriculum and related assessments are at the core of student learning and thereby one of the most important levers for national governments to improve their education system.

Thanks to data generated by the  ESRC-DFID funded project: ‘Accountability, capacity and trust to improve learning outcomes in South Africa: a systems approach’ indicate that a national curriculum alone cannot improve learning outcomes in a highly heterogeneous and unequal system.

Three one-day focus group sessions with academics and practitioners working in the field of school improvement, teachers and district officials in the KwaZulu Natal province helped us understand why. These stakeholders describe how the context in which the national policy is being implemented and monitored vastly differs for poorer schools that are often located in rural remote areas, versus schools in more urban, advantaged areas. The highly regulated nature and top down control of the policy  ensures all schools are being treated on equal footing, but with very different outcomes and resulting increases in performance gaps.

Differences between Schools

Four mechanisms can explain the differences between the two groups of schools and their ability to effectively implement Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements:

  • Remoteness of schools in quintile 1-3 which makes them unattractive places to teach in and inaccessible for district support which impedes learners’ access to the curriculum and subsequent learning. Both conditions affect learning outcomes as these schools suffer from high teacher turn-over, recruitment problems and vacancies, lack of support for learning in the community, and limited access to professional development and training to deliver CAPS. This is likely a reinforcing loop as low learning outcomes will further impede morale, both of the local community and teachers, as well as the reputation of the school which will enhance the unattractiveness of the school for high quality teachers. District support might balance the decline, but is currently not targeted specifically towards schools in remote areas; instead, available (limited) capacity is allocated to schools which are relatively close to the district and/or easy accessible.
  • Curriculum reform overload. Respondents talk about the frequent changes in the curriculum which often don’t reach schools in rural areas in a timely and structured manner. Teachers access reforms at different points in time and are offered little or no district support to implement changes (due to the remoteness of the office) where some district officials also don’t agree with the changes. Schools in urban areas would on the other hand be up to speed with changes, causing the performance gap between the two groups of schools to increase over time.
  • Multigrade teaching. The remoteness of schools, particularly those in quintiles 1-3 and high teacher turn-over and vacancies leads to multigrade teaching of large classes where teachers have to cover multiple subjects and age ranges. The situation leads to high workload and absenteeism when teachers arrive late to skip periods for which they are scheduled to teach out of subject. This has a knock-on effect on student morale and attendance with impaired learning as a result.
  • Micromanagement and accountability. The regulatory context of CAPS where principals and heads of department are required to monitor teachers’ implementation of the national curriculum leads to what our respondents describe as ‘micromanagement’ and ‘malicious accountability’. They explain how, when faced with lack of curriculum coverage, principals and senior staff pressurize teachers to submit ‘catch-up programmes’ where their writing of these plans reduces time for lesson planning and would cause them to try and move on covering the curriculum, even when learners don’t master content The lack of remedial support in these schools and a national progression policy which inhibits multiple repetition of grades per phase acerbates the problem.

What do these findings imply for leaders and managers?

What these findings show is that the implementation of a national curriculum on its own is likely to have very limited impact on learning practices and can even contradict or squeeze out issues of quality. What is needed is an adequate investigation of why teachers are falling behind the scheduled progress and a response which addresses these causes: support and professional development, time, skills, class size and multi-grade teaching. A national curriculum can only transform an education system, marred by high inequality when it offers sufficient support to schools in the most challenging circumstances while allowing the best schools the flexibility to teach to the highest standards.


Melanie Ehren is a Professor in the Governance of Schools and Education systems, Director of Research institute LEARN! and honorary Professor at University College, Institute of Education. Her academic work focuses on the effectiveness of accountability and evaluation systems and aims to contribute to a greater understanding of the interplay between accountability and the broader education system in tackling inequality and improving student outcomes. 


Andrew Paterson is a Research Specialist at JET Education Services, Johannesburg, South Africa.


Asiyah Hendricks has a BEd Hons in inclusive Education. She is an MQA specialist for the NECT project. Her fields of expertise are intermediate and senior phase qualified, learning mathematics, remediation teaching, inclusive teaching, and special need teaching. She has managed several small- and large-scale education and training materials and resources projects targeting various levels of the education curriculum and phases. She is avidly interested in education policy development and capacity building of subject advisors; school management teams teachers, parents and learners


Jacqueline Baxter FcASS Is Associate Professor in Public Policy and Management, and Director of the Centre for research and innovation in online business and legal education. Her research interests lie in the area of public service governance and accountability and trust in governance. Her pedagogical interests lie in the area of online teaching identity, motivation and development. She is Editor in Chief of the Sage Journal: Management in Education and a member of the BELMAS Council.

Related Projects: 

Accountability, capacity and trust to improve learning outcomes in South Africa: a systems approach

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