A school system designed to fail kids

“We can put pressure on the government: it isn’t a closed shop and it must see that some of the most prominent educators in the country are having these meetings,” said professor Neville Alexander at a recent discussion on progressive activism against the ongoing exclusion of the majority from quality education.

“We’re still trying to position ourselves vis-à-vis the post-apartheid state,” said Alexander, who heads the University of Cape Town’s Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa).

He was speaking at the conference, “Ensuring Quality Public Education”, convened jointly in Johannesburg by the Public Participation in Education Network and the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (Cert) two weeks ago.

“How can we make a difference that will empower the poor and the disadvantaged without their becoming complicit in their own oppression?” asked Alexander. About 70 academics, activists, community representatives and other educationists worked within these terms throughout the day’s discussion of education and marginalisation.

“A school system designed to fail a lot of kids” (as one speaker from the floor put it) and higher education that treats knowledge as a “monetisable” commodity were the subjects of papers by Brian Ramadiro, deputy director of the University of Fort Hare’s Nelson Mandela Institute, and Cert director Everard Weber respectively.

The overlooked sectors that leave millions in the lurch — namely, adult basic education and early childhood development — came under scrutiny from Farrell Hunter of the Adult Learning Network and Cert researcher Ivor Baatjes in turn. And in another session, University of Pretoria education professor Mokubung Nkomo and South African Democratic Teachers’ Union official Veronica Hofmeester engaged Alexander on “racism, discrimination and xenophobia”.

“How does all this help us think about collective action?” Nelson Mandela Institute executive director Kim Porteus asked. Rising to her challenge, contributions from the floor through the day collectively sketched the scale and the detail of unrealised post-apartheid visions:

  • “The Johannesburg city library has been closed for 18 months,” said one, noting that the NGO Equal Education’s school campaign is centred on there being adequate libraries at only 8% of state schools. “It’s 16 years down the line after our democratically elected government came into power but I’m still hearing the same thing. What else can be done?”
  • “If you level the playing fields racism will go away. We have to take a hard look at these situations where people are marginalised.”
  • “The system is designed to fail a lot of our learners: we have more primary schools than we have high schools. How can we maintain learners in our education system so that they all experience school to matric level?”
  • “We don’t see education as a service delivery issue, we only see water, electricity and housing as such. But we need to start looking at education in this way.”

“The hegemonic status of English is a class issue — let’s not pussyfoot around this,” said Alexander in a session titled “The Three L’s: Libraries, Literacy and Language”. And in the same session, Ramadiro picked up Porteus’s focus on action by emphasising the value of locally based engagements that develop “unrecognised skills in communities”.

Concrete action was Alexander’s focus too, when he described reading clubs in the Western Cape initiated by Praesa: “They’re spreading like wildfire,” he said.


The lack of school libraries feeds into two national scourges — not only illiteracy but also “a-literacy. Even those who can read don’t,” Alexander said. Schools with no or inadequate libraries should be assisted to establish “resource hubs that several schools at once use”, he suggested.

Expressing the hope in his concluding address that this conference would be the first of a series, Alexander said: “We need to engage the government on two levels: ideologically, in setting out agendas that serve to challenge government, and actively, by means of pressure and campaigns on specifics.”

Know your rights

School Nutrition and the Rights of Learners and Racism and Education are new booklets launched at the Cert/PPEN conference.
Published with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the two booklets are the latest in the Education Rights Project series that now has 14 titles and assists learners and educators to know their rights across a range of topics that include sexual violence, corporal punishment and bullying, HIV/Aids, language, religion, disability, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, schooling costs, admission policy and school governing bodies. For more information, call Cert on 011 559 1148 or email [email protected]

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David Macfarlane
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