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South Africa: Struggling for an independent curriculum

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For almost a year now, the electricity in South Africa is cut off every day. An outdated power grid, but above all corruption and sabotage lead to these daily hour-long power outages. That the high-quality coal is exported, while in the home country only low-grade coal is used to generate electricity, serves to exacerbate the situation. Many electricity plants have been forced to close due to lack of electricity, and whole sectors of the economy are in danger of collapse. The political and economic situation in South Africa is in a serious crisis. This impacts adversely on the education system, including the Waldorf schools in the country. William Bester, long-time teacher and manager at the Michael Mount Waldorf School in Johannesburg, has worked for the Southern African Federation of Waldorf Schools since 2022. William reports on the situation in South Africa for us.

South Africa is a wonderful, beautiful country with positive people and great possibility for change. In this young democracy I believe that in time we will overcome the hardships and challenges currently facing our country. On a general level the challenges facing South Africans on a day-to-day basis are deep-seated. 30 years after the ending of the apartheid regime, the degree of positive change is hard to detect. In 1994, there was a mood of hope for our nation, a coming together without a revolution. However, the country’s infrastructure is in a state of collapse, with roads and electricity supply being compromised. Load shedding occurs for anything up to 11 hours a day. There are promises of international investment in our electricity crisis which will bring relief but only in 2-5 years from now. State Health care is in disarray and there is a huge growth in informal housing as government cannot meet the needed demand. Hope has been replaced by dissatisfaction and the authorities’ response is one of central control and contradiction. There is currently another wave of people immigrating, due to the poor economic and political situation.

The Current Educational landscape in South Africa is fraught with obstacles. One of the most significant being the pending changes to the BELA Bill (The Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill). This includes issues like, compulsory grade R education (from 6 years old), language policy, vaccination regulations and even curriculum requirements etc. In the Waldorf movement all our schools are struggling to keep up with the financial demands with decreasing student numbers and huge hikes in the costs of services, Meanwhile, the state authorities are applying pressure on Alternate Curricula schools, including the Waldorf schools, to comply with education policy and curriculum standards. These are extremely prescriptive and would make it impossible to offer our unique education. It is a paradox that in a country that has a progressive, liberal constitution, the education policy is ‘old’ and lacks foresight. It seems to be a case of 1st World solutions for 3rd World problems.

The number of pupils at Waldorf schools fell from 5,300 before the pandemic to 3,300 after the pandemic. We are now enrolling new children, but growth is very slow. We have seen the biggest loss in the early childhood sections of our schools. There is a general teacher shortage in the country, and a specific Waldorf teacher shortage. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Centre for Creative Education is training Foundation phase teachers and no other phase. Thus, teachers rely on our inhouse teacher training initiatives and mentorship to support their Waldorf pedagogic development. The Centre for Creative Education (CCE) in Cape Town is also going through a period of upheaval and change. A process of institutional audit, review and restructuring is ongoing, pending a review from the Higher Education Council.  CCE offers the only formal Waldorf Teacher training in South Africa.

During the pandemic, Waldorf schools received a ‘letter demanding compliance to the national core curriculum. This letter was received from UMALUSI (the department responsible for quality assurance). This in the face of the Department of Basic Education conceding to change education policy to accommodate alternate and foreign curricula schools -an unintended omission from legislation.  We have been negotiating around this topic for more than 16 years and now it would appear that we have no choice but to defend our right to independence in court. Likely compromises will mean that there will be changes to the education offered from Class 10 upwards, with a range of measurable outcomes required. A new challenge facing South Africa is the introduction of a Grade 9 school leaving certificate. The implications of this for Waldorf schools are currently unclear. In the 0-4 Years phase, the government has shifted responsibility from the department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education. This has tremendous implications on the curriculum framework as formal curricula is now being legislated.

Against this backdrop of challenge and difficulties, South Africans are a resilient and responsive people. The South African Waldorf Federation of Waldorf Schools is part of a strong alliance of 9 independent school associations (NAISA), who are lobbying and making representations to government. However, anything that is different on the educational scene tends to be regarded as “privileged”. Teachers’ salaries are extremely low in most of the Waldorf schools. There is a huge amount of love for the children. The current strategy for the Federation is centred around supporting the schools in their diversity. A national high school teacher training programme is being designed, which is supported by a newly created national teacher training committee. Work is ongoing on a core Waldorf Teacher training curriculum. There is also extensive work and a review of the Waldorf curriculum in our schools.

William Bester

From Waldorf Worldwide, Autumn/Winter 2023/2024

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