Jonathan Jansen

In the classroom

Sarah Laurence quizzes Professor Jonathan Jansen about his new book, How to Fix South Africa's Schools


Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State since 2009, Professor Jonathan Jansen has become a household name in South Africa due to his outspoken comments, passion for grassroots education and transformation, and controversial decisions concerning racially-charged incidents at UFS. His newest book, How to Fix South Africa’s Schools, was written in collaboration with American filmmaker, Molly Blank, who captured schools’ stories on DVD.

What led you and Blank to write this book?

Desperation. I’m desperate to find a way to fix schools that are simply not working, or not working well enough. I know the government doesn’t have a very comprehensive or effective plan to do it so I thought that one of the things I could do, instead of going round to all the schools in the country, is to capture the beauty, strength and goodness in those schools that are, in terms of resources, not “supposed” to do well.

We came up with two schools in each province and an extra one in the Western Cape that really did well despite the circumstances. I then asked Molly, who is a fantastic educational filmmaker, to capture aspects of the schools such as the quality of leadership, dynamics and culture of the schools, interactions between staff and students and the role of the parents. Molly was brilliant, she went in with her camera man and captured the different ways of being excellent in each school and then we looked at the footage and asked ourselves what was common across all these schools – what do all the principals do, or all the science teachers, that explains the reputation of their schools? After that I distilled the information into the ten points that you see in the book.

Why did you decide to write it as a manual instead of a book?

I didn’t want people to read it and put it in their library — I wanted people to use it! I wanted governing bodies and school management teams to say, “Here’s something that we can use. It’s based on a lot of common sense as well as a lot of research – how can we work through this and approach this as a school?” People don’t normally approach a book like that so I was upfront and said it was a workbook, something you can actually use in a systematic way.

Having known so much of the facts and theory before you started the project, what was the biggest thing you learnt during this process?

The one thing that I found fascinating and enjoyable and completely unexpected was how a movie can capture emotion. A lot of people said that when they watched the DVDs they choked up and started crying. For me this was new because I had never written a book with a filmmaker before. It was wonderful to see how you can capture what is often invisible in a written report. The wonderful, wonderful ways in which schools work was also a surprise.

What would you advise teachers who are trying their best under very difficult circumstances?

I want to tell them that there are models out there that you can draw on. Find ways of extracting solutions from the lives of people who are just like you but have found different ways of managing with little resources. Very often teachers are understandably discouraged because they’re trying their damnedest but don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I would say to them, look at this – it can be done! There are many people like you and there are many things you can do to get good results and a sense of satisfaction as a professional.

What is the one most urgent thing that government needs to change?

Government needs to just make sure that it provides every school with the basics that they need to function operationally. In other words, they need to make sure that there’s a textbook for every child, in every subject, and that every teacher is qualified. Make sure there’s a roof that doesn’t leak, make sure there’s a working toilet. Just do the basic things.

As you mention in your book, South Africa spends a huge amount of our budget on education. So why do you think these basic things are still not in place?

There are two major reasons. Firstly, there is too much corruption in the system. So a tender for textbooks in Limpopo bypasses a lot of vultures in the system – the money travels slowly and sometimes never arrives at a school because of the embedded corruption. The other reason is that government doesn’t really see education as its top priority. There’s no political will in the system to drive it and it’s only when things are driven that you get action.

Speaking of being driven, you have become quite a spokesman and public figure. To what do you attribute this?

I don’t know – I suppose I have a point of view on education because I’m passionate about schools and universities so I talk a lot about it. Also, unlike some of my colleagues, I really don’t care what people in power think about what I say and, for me, education is a passion and a priority. So I suppose that in a country like ours where everybody is over-sensitive about what they say and feel, I get attention for what I say.

How to Fix South Africa’s Schools is published by Bookstorm and is available from Read an extract here.



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