Education — from crisis to opportunity

South Africa must face up to the fact that our schools are a national disaster. We desperately need short-term holding operations, immediate improvements and a long-term turnaround plan.

In a stagnant society, devoid of hope, poor outcomes wouldn’t matter. But our nation in becoming cannot afford a massive skills deficit, continued inequality and dashed hopes in a born-free generation that expects better. To realise our promise, and to compete in the world economy, we have to do better.

We all know that South Africa spends a great deal on education — in fact, at R105-billion, education spending is higher than any other sector of the national budget. Yet in test after test, South African learners rank among the world’s worst performers.

Education replicates our society’s glaring inequalities. For example, in the Western Cape, 2005 grade 6 results showed 85% of learners in former Model C schools reading at appropriate levels, while the corresponding figure for black schools was 5%. In maths, the figure was 63% in formerly white schools and a dismal 2% in black.

Where does the blame lie?

Educational reform anywhere is complex. Whether in India, Chile or even the wealthy countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, there are few examples of successfully raising educational outcomes. And the problems of transition here were enormous: from creating a single education department, to radically shifting public expenditure on education in favour of poor communities, to the extensive logistics of running a legitimate national matriculation exam.

There are legions of excellent departmental programmes in place, from nutrition to scholar transport to no-fee schools. Yet somehow we are not hitting critical mass: indeed, matric results and university exemption rates point to a slow, disturbing decline.

Education is, in the first place, a relation between learner and educator in the classroom. Teachers are at the heart of any recovery. Yet they are disillusioned, badly paid, rarely up to speed with curriculum and continually at war with education authorities. Labour-relations issues, blame games and knee-jerk defence of members dominate. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union annually bemoans unacceptable results in poor schools, but seems unable to recall that this is where its members are teaching.

Organisation and management — in a word, leadership — can work wonders. Nare Moloto, principal of Piet N Aphane High in rural Limpopo, achieved an 88% matric pass with numerous maths distinctions. He has promises of goats from the department of agriculture for his nutrition scheme; he runs food gardens and “permaculture” with help from the government and an NGO; the community sustains a number of bursaries at tertiary level. It can be done.

But too often support structures around schools let good leaders down. Provinces and district officials don’t do their jobs. Money is stolen; salary disputes linger; help and assistance run a poor third to bureaucratic formalism and mindless paperwork. In a developmental state, officials and teachers have to do their jobs, properly and on time.

Finally, the daily lives of our children present educational challenges. Many learners have parents who are unemployed and grannies who survive on pensions; there are Aids orphans; there are few books in the home or community facilities. In many schools, chaos reigns as gangsters disrupt class and teachers arrive late. The boundaries, structure, disciplines and attitudes essential for learning are elusive.

In other words, a potent mix of historical and social factors both within and beyond the classroom reinforces the status quo.

This is especially so in the absence of clear national vision. There has been no national debate on key education priorities, on what support teachers require, on what we expect from teachers and learners. There is no agreed set of medium-term targets that everyone can support. A properly prepared indaba could bring into focus a national vision for how we will realise quality education.

This is the strong upside of recent calls from the ANC to make education a priority for all government departments. The ANC has called for a national compact with teachers. Beyond the important impact of removing school fees, and (as-yet-uncosted) calls for free education to undergraduate level, such cries for grassroots involvement in education hold promise for desperately needed education renewal.

We should seize this opportunity.

Graeme Bloch is education specialist with the Development Bank of Southern Africa

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