Offering a real second chance

Project Literacy is nearly 40 years old. This gives the organisation extraordinary ability to review the challenges and changes which have been borne by the adult education fraternity in the recent past.

Much has been written about the failure of outcomes-based education (OBE) in the schooling system.
Many forget that it was the formalised adult education system adopted by South Africa after 1994 that pioneered the introduction of a whole new world of outcomes, cross-critical fields, portfolio assessments and hastily trained educators who were to produce marvellous lessons on their own.

As it is fashionable at the moment to trash the past and build the new tomorrow, we need to be sure that some of the basic principles of OBE are not thrown out in their entirety. But the present review of the school system leaves us with more questions than answers.

Have we answered the needs of adult learners in a more appropriate manner than previously? Do we have better-trained, motivated educators?

What of the millions of rands spent on materials production? Why is it that some provinces now spend less on Abet than they did in 1994?

Have all the adult learners learnt and left? Has industry in South Africa really used the formal Abet system to link learning with on-the-job training and upward mobility?

What are the implications for young people who hold a matric certificate in their hand and yet, when assessed by independent agents, are placed at Abet level two or three?

Early Childhood Development and Abet were once firm favourites of foreign donors, but has the South African government in any guise picked up with monetary support where others have left a hole?

More questions than answers, more negative than positive. It is important to remember that Abet was introduced to bring literacy out of its night school/church hall closet and give it some respectability, and to enforce common standards and practices.

Abet was the chosen term of trade unions, business and government and it was to be a revolutionary education system that would right the wrongs of the past.

Previously, the old night schools, NGOs and church-run groups used textbooks written by the old department of education and training and added on worksheets, with crossed-out politically offensive portions—all of which offered learners a hodgepodge curriculum that the department examined.

The good thinking behind OBE was to make learners active participants in the classroom, critical thinkers and critical citizens. The obvious need then was for critical, thinking, innovative educators. While these educators were often found in small voluntary-based programmes, once these went to scale the majority of educators were terrified of OBE.

Many taught in night schools to supplement their income rather than inspire learners. So names were changed, night schools became adult learning centres, much was made of links to learnerships (aka apprenticeships) and further education and training colleges (formerly known as technical colleges), power was devolved to centre governing bodies, teachers became educators and students were lifelong learners.

In fact, to complete the general education and training certificate, which is the formal exit point from adult learning, one would have to be a lifelong learner. It simply mirrored the matric of children but was done part time, so, in effect, it would take six to seven years to achieve.

In an attempt to regulate delivery, Umalusi and some of the Seta Education and Training Qualification Authorities began to accredit providers and Umalusi recognised only two examining bodies for adult learners: the state and the Independent Examinations Board. Regulations that are not enforced are hardly worth the paper they are written on.

Too often in South Africa those set up to police sectors and professions find it hard to make unpopular decisions. So we talk of “capacitation”
rather than deregistration.

In fact, some government departments and, in one case, an entire province, used the services of an unregistered examining body to reward their learners with meaningless pieces of paper.

Two attempts have been made by the government to run national literacy campaigns that would “eradicate” illiteracy and provide a new batch of eager learners to fill the dwindling numbers in adult education centres.

The second attempt, Kha ri Gude, is still in operation. It appears to run so quietly it is hardly noticeable at all. Hardly the stuff of Cuba and Venezuela it was modelled on.

We need to face the following facts: there remains a group of adult learners (largely rural and largely over the age of 40) who want basic reading and writing skills to empower themselves to read government notices, newspapers and the Bible.

A second group (younger and more urban) want to repeat a matric type of exam that will enable them to enter institutions of higher learning where the schooling system failed them.

A third group (also younger and hungrier) want a rapid-learning programme in English and maths that will allow access to trades, learnerships and the world of work.

With the recent split of responsibilities between the departments of basic education and higher education and training there is the first positive step to acknowledge the different consumer groups.

Low attendance in Abet programmes can only mean that the consumers (learners) are not getting what they want. Project Literacy has managed large-scale interventions funded by various Setas and the National Skills Fund.

These work well and attendance is good where learners see formal learning as a means to an end. Two examples come to mind.

The first, funded by the Chemical Seta, was in 2004 and offered young school learners and school dropouts the chance to improve their maths and science results with the promise that at least 150 of the young people would enter a learnership within the chemical industry. There was 100% attendance by 4 000 young people and a 73% pass rate on a maths and science paper specially set by the national department.

In the second, we have been involved in a multimillion-rand project of the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Seta (Merseta) that will see English and maths curricula and materials suited specially to each of its five chambers. This will enable learners in the motor
manufacturing sector to acquire skills in language and maths that will directly improve their understanding of their jobs and increase their ability to move up the career ladder.

The National Skills Fund has financed huge Abet interventions over the past four years and these have been most successful when linked to the workplace or the provision of a meal or some other incentive for poor people (this can be as “insignificant” as a cup of soup and an umbrella in the Cape winter).

In conclusion, we have to acknowledge that one size cannot fit or suit all. Whatever we call it, the national need is loud and clear for post-school learning. All the negativity around our schooling system fails to put a human face to the tragedy: the millions of young people who cannot enter the world of learning and work with any confidence.

We have to ensure that when they choose a “second chance” it does link to a trade or further learning in an open and transparent manner.
We must strictly enforce standards in order to ensure that, when one does undertake the difficult and long route of formal learning, the certificate at the end means something.

Employers must be forced, with a carrot and a stick, if necessary, to offer their employees a chance to learn in a reasonable environment and within reasonable hours. Funding must be for multi-year projects.

Funding a learning programme for one year and then leaving learners in the lurch while funding is awaited from another body only leaves educators and learners demotivated. In fact, if they have to wait long enough, learners actually lose their newly acquired skills and have to start from scratch.

It is universally acknowledged and proven in South Africa that NGOs and community-based organisations are better at taking learning to people where they live and worship than government is.

Real results take real money, not crumbs from the education table. South Africa has the skills and the money to make this all happen. Do we have the political will and drive? This is yet to be seen.

Andrew Miller is the CEO of Project Literacy