No easy solutions
I have yet to see a photograph of children in a disadvantaged classroom wearing glasses. Malnutrition increases eye problems, so eyesight is probably worse than average: most kids just cannot see the board! Test eyes, give glasses, and I guarantee reading results will improve 10% overnight.
There are so many skilled people and organisations that want to help with education.
Why can we not fix it, when some things are so simple and there are so many people to make a difference? Because there is no quick fix.
Of course, we should not dream there would be overnight change. But recently we had a series of wake-up calls and shocks. In Limpopo, textbooks were not delivered on time. The national minister and the provincial MEC denied all responsibility. In the Eastern Cape, despite section 100 intervention, teachers were not allocated permanent jobs or schools the requisite teachers. Court orders on resources and mud schools were routinely ignored. While the South African Democratic Teachers Union initially rejected national intervention, it called for it the next day in fighting Modidima Mannya, then secretary for education in the province. Provincial politicians saw little need to intervene on behalf of parents. If stakeholders, schools, departments, teachers, officials and politicians pull in different directions, little can be done.
The sad news is that even where there are textbooks in children's hands, there is little to celebrate. As a nation, we stare in shock at a declining quality of education.
Our young people are betrayed and left without the means to take up the opportunities that a new demo-cracy opens up. Our children are being brutally failed. Our development as a nation is sadly held back.
Although we should indeed wake up, we need also to acknowledge that our basics are bad. Our own annual national assessments (ANAs) show that perhaps 35% of our kids can read or count. If we are not getting the foundations right, we are unsurprisingly not getting the high-level skills we require as a nation. Right through the pipeline, education problems and inequalities reproduce themselves. And these are averages. In the Western Cape, results in Khayelitsha are almost as bad as in the Eastern Cape. If you want to be a refugee, head for schools up-country! Cape Town, except for the leafy suburbs, has little to offer besides more school closures.
We are not getting the scientists, accountants, engineers and doctors we need to achieve as a nation, let alone the poets, musicians and socio-logists who can help us interpret the transition and what is going on.
We have never lived in a flourishing democracy and will have to learn to get there. Slowly, there is improvement, yes: but India and China are not waiting for us. We live in a harsh, competitive world and we are not getting sufficient skills to compete.
It is not enough to tell children we need plumbers and electricians. They correctly see further education and training colleges and sector education and training authorities failing to operate; they realise they need more than rhetoric or excellent Green Papers to achieve the status they desire, to realise their talents, to be the best. They do not want to know only the problems, but need solutions.
Worse, the problems take a racial form. An astounding 98% of white kids get through matric and some 60% go on to university; the corresponding figures for blacks are about 50% simply getting to matric and some 12% to 15% of black matriculants going on to higher education. How can we do this to our new non-racial generation, who expect the new democracy to be fair and expect opportunities to be available to all?
Nor would changing the demographics of ex-model C schools help: even if they were 100% black, 80% of our kids would still find themselves in poor township and rural schools.
The sad list goes on. Business washes its hands of responsibility for training, beyond cutting ribbons and throwing some of its vast profits at the problem.
We hear too many "triers". Some try telling us private schooling is the answer. Yet nowhere — whether in Chile or Charter schools — is there firm evidence that this will work. Even if we doubled private schools from the current 4% of pupils acknowledged by statistics to 8%, 80% or more of kids would still be in poor township and rural schools. It is here we have to make the difference. Private schools, at best, are a part of the solution, not the whole.
One last moan: things are not worse than they used to be. In 1976, at the height of apartheid, only 26% of kids even got beyond primary school. With such small numbers in secondary school, no wonder teachers could be more dedicated or see themselves as warriors against apartheid. In 1976, I was banned because I called for democracy. Now I can say whatever I want about our school and, much as they might want, our ministers can do nothing to keep me quiet. Worse than under apartheid?
I do think we have the logistical capabilities to get things right. We run a national matric exam, get papers set and get them out to schools, mark them, get results out in good time.
Of course, teaching and education are tough. Resources are unequal and limited. It is indeed a toxic mix that holds things back, a combination of poor teaching, inadequate facilities and resources, poverty in communities and parents intimidated by their own illiteracy and lack of schooling. There is poor management by principals and officials, uncaring politicians: a combination of our history and of mistakes such as teacher retrenchments and the closure of training colleges.
So it will not be easy to fix, and will not happen overnight.
I have seen brilliant rural schools, whether in Mmatau village in North West or in rural Empangeni, Kwa-zulu Natal. Bhukulani Secondary in Soweto consistently attains a matric pass rate of over 95%. In Cape Town, Tembisa and Soweto children march in their thousands for libraries and for better results, often organised, as in Equal Education.
Yet, for the kids, it is more rational to burn down a school if you want attention or to join a gang than to go to school. In a gang, you will work hard, learn all about cars and how to disarm burglar alarms, you will have a job and a steady income. By contrast, your chances at school look like a lottery. Perhaps, indeed, as the sociologists tell us, schooling is merely one of the means to hold our children back and to keep them in poverty. The rhetoric of improvement, the examples of individuals and schools that fly despite their circumstances, only make it more difficult for the vast majority who will inevitably fail. They will blame themselves for lack of effort, but the system, their poverty and lack of jobs will go unchallenged.
If this is not to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if kids are to fly, we need to challenge the inequalities hidden by discourse, as well as inequalities and poverty itself. This is long term and hands on. There is little room for ribbon cutting. Politicians need to be pressured, and we need to take responsibility for changes ourselves as active citizens.
National vision lacking
We need a national vision of what education can do, a conversation about what our schooling is intended for, our realities and history. Surely everyone must read and count and get the basics? Surely, not everyone can go through the system to university? Surely we do need thinkers, educationists, academics and intellectuals?) This is a conversation we have not had as a nation, even before we tackle the more "technical" details.
Teachers have to rise to the task and see themselves as the frontline of liberation for our children, as the Afrikaner nationalist movement did. Unions cannot fight for only their members' rights and use real problems as excuses to avoid their work.Maybe the strategy is a bit of a Stalingrad solution: fix our education school-by-school and community-by-community. Work in our own "backyards", where we find ourselves. All in.
It won't be easy. We have to start now, with determination and grit. Surely we can do it?
Graeme Bloch is visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Public and Development Management