Celebrating our journey to freedom

Our freedom child is turning 13. We should be proud we’ve brought her to her teenage years.

She’s spent a significant part of her life in school. As Finance Minister Trevor Manuel reminded us recently, schools of quality are crucial if ‘all people’s lives have equal worth”.

He also reminded us what education is. Teachers hold the hopes of 11-million children in a profession based on ‘love for children and a desire for learning”. He rightly praised thousands of teachers who take this on with discipline and love.

Giving billions of extra rand, especially for teacher support and bursaries, Manuel asked if we get value for money: ‘[For this] step change in resources — we want to see a step change in results.”

We’ve done amazing things in education, from unifying racial departments to new pro-poor norms and standards. Matric exams show enormous technical ability to run logistics, planning and coordination nationally.

Education is deeply embedded in society. South Africa has many historical faultlines. Education draws into itself these fractures and strains and reproduce many inequalities and values of society as it is.

Education also carries hopes and aspirations to emerge from this situation. Education — as the means of escape for individual and society — carries the liberatory potential of our land.

Yet South African education is in serious trouble.

We are a country facing expanded growth. The current production of high-level skills is insufficient.

In a country with great expectations of equity, education fails to make the grade, particularly impacting on black schools: poor, rural and township.

In terms of key indicators across the school system, we know that education has consistently poor outcomes.

Our basic reading scores are among the worst in Africa.

More alarming are disparities among schools. Too few get adequate maths and science results. Half of learners do not even make it through school, dropping out before completion.

For 60% to 80% of our children, largely black, education reinforces marginalisation, condemning them to a second economy of unemployment and survival. Many township and rural schools have been described as sinkholes with children ‘warehoused” rather than educated. Two parallel education systems mirror the two economies that separate South Africans.

Surveys talk about an overwhelming sense of sadness among young unemployed and circles of doom that reinforce their marginalisation and lack of hope.

Where students expect opportunities and assistance, many find hopes and dreams crumbling before their eyes, and face obstacles rather than ladders to progress and self-esteem.

Educational change is extremely complex, deep and long-term. We need to draw on all our resources, without simplistic or alienating calls. Wrong moves impact drastically on lives of real children.

Change is also urgent. We need to focus society around action to step up education quality.

Teachers are without doubt the core of development. In-school issues — classroom pedagogy and knowledge — and structures of management and organisation, are the first call.

At some levels education authorities are getting it right. But there are too many frustrations and cracks, especially at provincial level.

Beyond schools, we look at the wider society. Many problems are hardly of schooling’s making. Malnutrition, hunger, poverty, Aids, child abuse, criminal gangs, lack of books or people to assist at home, transport, all impact on the classroom.

At every turn networks, assets, capabilities and social capital available to poor communities, are subject to stress and pressure. The differing advantages of poor and rich children are some of the strongest reasons for inequalities and relatively weak outcomes in poor communities and schools.

Effective delivery requires coordination and political will to pull school and non-school factors together in a planned, deliberate and strategised way. Joined-up government is not easy.

We still today need a clear set of national priorities and goals for education, with medium-term perspectives and plans. Simple agreements are needed: what are our goals and expectations? In what proportion, and how, are we trying to get which learners through what levels? What do we expect from our teachers, and students? Can we set goals for five years, for 10, for 15?

There is no silver bullet. Nor the possibility of ‘business as usual”.

We desperately need national consensus around education, with involvement and pressure by ordinary citizens, to overcome deeply embedded relations of inequality and differentiated access. Teachers are the key.

Destabilising and divisive calls won’t help. It is sad but true that teachers have let their unions focus mostly on labour-relations issues, to the virtual exclusion of the liberatory potential of their profession. Whether the threat of strikes at exam time; meetings in school time; or just issues of discipline and commitment; these are things we need to discuss, without being defensive.

The legitimate expectations of our youth that education underpins their freedom, demands new, bold and comprehensive thinking and solutions.

Graeme Bloch is an education policy analyst at the Development Bank of Southern Africa

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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Graeme Bloch
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