Where is education in South Africa headed?


Iwan Pienaar

Even 18 years after the fall of apartheid, the historical failings of the system have been perpetuated and deepened. This week, the Mail & Guardian hosted a Critical Thinking Forum to examine whether the quality of and access to education are enabling the economy.

The discussion, which took the form of a live broadcast on Radio 2000, trended on Twitter and elici-ted huge response from listeners.

Professor Nick Binedell, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, moderated the panel that consisted of Ngoako Selamolela, president of the South African Student Council (Sasco), Mamaponya Mokgoba, president of the Professional Educator's Union (PEU), Lukhanyo Mangona, spokesperson for Equal Education, Graeme Bloch, senior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, and Professor Mary Metcalfe, lead specialist for social infrastructure at the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Mohale Ralebitso, director for marketing, commu-nication and corporate affairs at Old Mutual Emerging Markets, set the scene by highlighting how South Africa is ranked 138th out of 142 countries in the world when it comes to the quality of maths and science education.

"The crisis in our education -system robs the country of the -ability to produce the skills needed for people to exercise the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. The tragic situation is that the legacy of apartheid -continues to follow us in education. We want the economy to be in a position to produce highly skilled people who can attract high-level wages. We do not want to be trapped in a factory-driven econo-my," he said.

Sasco's Selamolela said the crisis encapsulates both basic and higher education. But while he admits that there are good education facilities in metropolitan areas, the situation is quite different further afield.

"Even when people from working class backgrounds get access to -education, they are unable to -sustain it due to a number of factors such as a lack of support structures and the long distances required to travel to schools."

Part of the challenge is to change the way that the education system is run in the country. The PEU's Mokgoba attributed this in part to pre-1994 schools that still have the same staff structures in place.

"How can township schools attract better teachers when there is very little money to do so? These schools have more than 40 learners per teacher. Another aspect to this is that learners with different home languages are brought together in one classroom and are not taught in their home languages. On a -systemic level, the current education model does not factor in these challenges," she said.

Division of class

With the bulk of its members in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape, the Equal Education movement sees this class division more clearly than most.

"The numbers speak for themselves. Out of the more than 6 000 learners who sat for grade 12 over the past few years, only 457 of them passed at 50%. We need to look at the quality of basic education in this country. Our children simply do not have the basic and foundational tools to deal with their school subjects in later years," said Mangona.

One of the ways he said that this can be fixed is to get communities more actively involved in education. He cited the work Equal Education has done in Tembisa in Gauteng and Khayelitsha as examples of how they are trying to engage with communities.

However, Bloch said the question under discussion should rather be on whether it is the economy that is failing education. "You can have all the access to quality education in the world, excel at school and university, but is there a guarantee of a job afterwards? The majority of people in South Africa are still sitting on the outside looking in. A person's circumstances are still a real problem in this country. While more people are getting university degrees and literacy is improving it is still happening too slowly. Why can we build fabulous soccer stadia but not libraries?" Metcalfe agreed to an extent.

"Systemically, children from poor families do worse in school from their early years for a variety of -reasons. By the time they are in grade 10, 20% of them are three years older than their grade cohort. So think of the teacher who has to educate a teenager of 16 and a young adult of 19 in the same class."

She said that young people learn very quickly that the system is excluding them. They can see the inequalities that exist and they see them on the basis of race.

"Of all the African children who write grade 12, only 1% get a qualification that gives them access to maths and science degrees. The -percentage jumps to 15% of white children. Even if these African -children get access to university, they suffer from inadequate -financing. The sense of injustice and exclusion can lead to anger. So instead of nurturing young children and building self-esteem, we are -systematically destroying it because of neglect in the system," she said.

The problem with the system

One of the challenges that affects how parents participate in the -education of their children is that they often have to relocate to where their jobs are, abandoning the responsibility of raising their children.

"We have a problem of having an entire society that is not necessarily interested in the education of -children. After all, education is not restricted to school hours. We need to make sure that learners can work in teams and collaboratively do things," said Selamolela.

He said that while the economy needs to be fed with skilled labourers, the system also has a responsibility to society. "What is the role of regulation to ensure that quality assurance is done for different careers? Black people have been excluded from many professions. It is ridiculous that if you fail one subject in school, you have to redo all of them to get your grade 12 qualification."

Mokgoba said that although every-body wants their children to pass grade 12, one still needs plumbers and electricians in the country.

"Outcomes-based education -provided students who could not pass pure mathematics with basic math literacy to be able to pursue artisan careers. However, the outcomes-based approach has been watered down in recent times. The thinking is no longer the way it used to be," she said.

Some might say that now is the time for people to stand up and do something about the state of education. Mangona said that there are principals who are doing amazing things with very limited support.

"We all need to work together to deal with this crisis. Social movements are giving hope to communities and seeing parents meeting to talk about education. But all -community members need to do something to address the problems we are facing in education," he said.

With good teachers often not wanting to stay in the profession, the country needs to make sure that they are supported and assisted to re-ignite their passion. Constant policy- changes in a short space of time are only adding to their frustration. And with teachers asking themselves whether they are still doing what they have been trained for, the country needs to look at what can be done to help them meet the challenges head on.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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