It seems at times that few people realise how much South Africa’s education system has improved since 1994. We notice falling standards, high dropout rates, a shortage of teachers and a disjunction between the needs of the market and the products of education and assume that bad news is all the news there is.
However, it is difficult to imagine how any education could be worse than the apartheid education system, given that it denied real learning or psychological support to three-quarters of the population. After 1994 the education department needed to triple its output abruptly while simultaneously lowering its costs (one of the loan requirements imposed on South Africa by the World Bank).
The fact that it performed as well as it did is extraordinary. Within a few years every child in the country was bundled on to a metaphorical school bus headed towards a successful future.
But somewhere along the line that bus started to stall and now it seems to be rolling back down the hill.
I am an educational psychologist. I have worked in wealthy private schools, optimistic township schools and everything in between and I think we have a serious problem.
I am not going to talk about how the high pupil-to-teacher ratio makes all other educational interventions almost irrelevant or how the teacher shortage makes firing bad teachers (who are few in number but still problematic) impossible. I will spend no more time than this sentence on how the obsession with pass rates leads to a lowering of standards and similarly no more than this on how insane it is that in a country with a lack of jobs we also have a lack of teachers. No, what I want to talk about is school psychology.
It was not until I became a teacher myself that I realised that for school-age learners psychology and education are inseparably interwoven. At that age anything that impacts on us psychologically necessarily also impacts on us educationally.
What is educational psychology?
Educational psychology can be loosely defined as the study of this interaction — education and the mind endlessly feeding off one another.
Unfortunately, in South Africa, circumstances are such that it is often the education part that gets eaten by the psychology.
One learner was referred to me because he was having difficulty concentrating in class. It was felt that he might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
On investigation I discovered that the boy (who was no older than 10) had recently lost his brother to prison, his father to Aids and a neighbour to a bullet in the head. You bet your face he couldn’t concentrate; who could? I am pleased to report that over the course of therapy he greatly improved.
But, sadly, this success does highlight the problem. You see, at the time I was in the process of fulfilling my internship requirements. I needed a certain number of hours of therapy and thus I was able to use my post as a school psychologist to help my anonymous client.
But once you are a “real” school psychologist, all such bets are off. Here in the Western Cape, I know of one education department psychologist who is responsible for more than 30 schools. If one does the maths on that and removes holidays, sick days, department meetings and exams, it turns out that he will get to each school on his circuit about four times a year. This is a problem because any decent therapeutic intervention takes at least five sessions; many would claim even more. And I am led to believe that the availability of school psychologists in other provinces is even worse.
This lack of psychological support is more than a simple absence of service: it is a psychological apartheid. If the schools are unable to get access to psychologists from the education department then they will encourage their learners’ parents to seek help privately and, despite the attempts of black economic empowerment and the growth of the economy, South Africa’s socioeconomic structure still lies closely parallel to racial lines.
Thus, children who have wealthy parents (who are predominantly white) will get access to a psychologist when they need one. The children who have middle-class parents (white, black and coloured) will get to see a psychologist if their parents can raise the money. But the children of poor parents (who are almost all non-white) will never get access to a psychologist.
This is bad at first glance but it is even worse after a moment’s thought. It is our impoverished learners who are most in need of help. They are the ones who are most likely to be robbed, raped, traumatised or disadvantaged. They already had the odds stacked against them before their access to support was taken away.
Eighteen years after apartheid, a circle is drawing to a close.
Andrew Verrijdt is an educational psychologist and a writer