Tackling systemic issues in Basic Education

Sara Muller is studying for a PhD in Education at University of Cape Town. Having witnessed the systemic problems plaguing disadvantaged schools in South Africa during her time as a teacher, Sara’s research critically examines how education policy guides and constrains how teachers operate in challenging spaces.

We spoke to Sara about her first-hand experience at the coalface of South Africa’s broken basic education system, her work with our partners at Equal Education, and what she sees as the internal contradictions of the #FeesMustFall movement.


Before getting involved in Education, you were employed in IT for several years. What made you decide to change paths?

I think I always had an underlying discomfort with working in the private sector, although I didn’t always have the words to say as much. It was an easy choice: my family all work in IT, so it was familiar. After trying on several other ‘hats’, I finally stumbled across teaching when I took a trial contract job working with Special Needs learners in the UK (this at the suggestion of a fellow dogsbody who worked in a café with me for minimum wage. He thought I would be a good teacher). So I knew IT wasn’t right for me… it didn’t seem socially useful. But it took a bit of trial and error before I landed in teaching.


Having worked as a maths teacher in some extremely disadvantaged township schools, what were some of the key challenges you experienced? How will your research contribute towards addressing these issues?

Gosh, it’s hard to do justice to the complexity of those spaces in anything less than a book! My PhD research focuses on how current education policy affects what teachers in such spaces do. The challenges are many: gang violence, substance abuse, broken homes, unemployment, infrastructure, lack of social workers and educational psychologists… unfortunately a lot of research (and activism) lack, in my opinion, a thorough understanding of how all these different variables interact and mutually reinforce each other. Sometimes the simplest thing like what type of photocopier a school gets allocated can have enormous knock on effects.

I will say this: the resilience of teachers and learners in those spaces to keep going day by day is astounding. We are too quick to berate teachers when learners don’t achieve, but in these places, just getting into work every day is to be applauded.

You have been involved in reviewing Equal Education’s recent safety audit of Western Cape schools. What do you make of these findings regarding safety and security issues in poor schools?

I’m extremely pleased that Equal Education are raising awareness about how unsafe our schools are: it’s a very real issue. One of the dilemmas facing activist work is how to approach complex problems in a way that can be lobbied and pressed effectively, and this report struggles with that dilemma. What makes schools unsafe is 10% external threat and 90% internal. That means the policy (and implementation) response has to be long-term and multiple, involving social workers, effective SEN diagnosis, dedicated pastoral staff etc. But fences are far easier to ask for.

Do you think that Higher Education in South Africa can become more inclusive without tackling systemic problems in the Basic Education system?

No. And no again. I wholly support the call for curriculum revision and an exploration of how racial and cultural hegemonies are perpetuated through our universities. But to extend free tertiary education to all in our current social state is to benefit the wealthy, a petit bourgeois misrecognition of the real issue: that 90% of our students are excluded not on financial grounds, but on academic grounds. Anyone who has made it to university in South Africa is already privileged. The far larger barrier to access cannot be addressed without tackling our schools, a social project that will have far greater reach in terms of social benefit.

For a bit more detail on contradictions regarding #FeesMustFall, see my blog at schooled.co.za

Professionally, where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

In the age of the gig economy it’s hard to see that far ahead. The last 5 years have been extremely variable but if I can consolidate the three things I do now—namely train new teachers, support and mentor newly qualified teachers, and engage critically through scholarship on systemic issues that affect our schools—that’d be great. I hope the university environment of South Africa survives the current moment in a manner that allows us to continue this type of bread-and-butter work meaningfully. This may sound unambitious, but I’ve come to realise that real change is effected by folks who do unsexy coalface work over long periods of time.

How has your membership of the Canon Collins network influenced your thinking about social justice issues and activism?

The Canon Collins network has particularly stimulated me in how I can and should engage with legislation, being a network particularly focused on law. Bringing legal texts side by side with theories of social justice has enabled me to write and think far more deeply about education issues and how they are framed.