Race and educational inequality in South Africa: a review of sociological research


Shaheeda Essack and Duncan Hindle

Palgrave Macmillian has published a systematic review of how sociologists have studied the relationship between race and ethnicity and educational inequality in 18 countries. The main methodology employed by the contributing authors to the volume is a comprehensive literature review.

The South African study – the only one on an African country – covers research published between 1980 and 2010, the period which marks the transition from education under apartheid to education under democracy. The authors note that de-racialisation has been of less importance to researchers than the quality of education among the African majority who historically have been the victims of inferior education. Despite progressive policies, education has become “a conserving force in society”, confirming its racial and economic inequalities (p. 492).

The socio-political importance of education has generated a plethora of empirical and policy studies but research from a sociological perspective has been limited. Sampling from seven databases the authors focus on peer-reviewed journal articles, commissioned research reports and edited books dealing with race and inequality in secondary education only.

The authors identify eight broad research traditions: (1) from oligarchy to democracy; (2) policy development – state versus resistance movements; (3) the impact of the removal of race-based policies; (4) racial (de)segregation: causes and consequences; (5) (de)segregation and school resources; (6) curriculum studies; (7) teacher training and pedagogy; and (8) charting inequalities in student outcomes.

The bulk of the chapter comprises an analysis of sociological research undertaken within each of these research traditions. The authors conclude that “the analysis consistently points towards the enduring inequalities in education between black and white learners across the spectrum”. The challenge is therefore “an all-pervasive systemic issue affecting almost 90% of the population”. Research-based policy must focus on how such inequalities can be reduced (p. 513).

The key findings and the recommendations of this study underline the challenges facing the post-school education and training sector: equity, re-distribution of economic resources, equalising educational opportunity, de-segregation and its impact on equity of outcome; racial desegregation as it pertains to staffing, curriculum and institutional culture in all organisations of teaching and learning; factors that inhibit integration in a learning organisation; pedagogy, teacher education and professional development; the focus on mathematics, science and technology education; and participation, progression, retention and success in higher forms of education and training.

Dr Shaheeda Essack is a Deputy Director: Private Higher Education Institutions in the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Mr Duncan Hindle is a former Director General of the Department of Education.

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The Research Bulletin on Post-School Education and Training is prepared by the Directorate: Research Coordination, Monitoring and Evaluation. Enquiries or contributions may be directed to: Lesego RamoseTel: 012 312 5657 Email: dhetresearch@dhet.gov.za Department of Higher Education and Training, 123 Francis Baard Street, Pretoria 0001