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Rethinking the building blocks

In this last of three articles I focus on alternatives to traditional schooling. The challenge is to reimagine schooling so that it does not just serve the elite, but also ensures that all children leave school literate and numerate. Present forms of schooling on the African continent do not do that. However, solutions are not obvious and change is resisted by those who manage the system and who themselves benefited from it.

The key to improving schooling in Africa lies in primary school. If pupils leave primary school confident in their own identity, fully literate and numerate in their home language and with a good grounding in the language of learning and teaching they will face in secondary schools, they will be well prepared for secondary education and the world of work, as well as for being active citizens.

Generally, non-traditional school-based alternatives, such as home schooling, are small scale and problematic. Such children are usually taught by their parents away from other children, which can reduce their social and communication skills and often their employability. Worse, most home schoolers boycott the mainstream system because they do not agree with the values that underlie it. This is usually a religious or race-based rejection.  

Other out-of-school options for children include American-style youth development programmes, which work outside normal school time and focus on life skills and team work and overall aim to develop leadership skills and confidence. These are not fully developed as alternatives to a schooling system, but act well as adjuncts to it.

So, if out of school options are not practical for a whole country, we need to examine alternative systems of schooling, particularly primary schooling. There are various models we can draw on, including ­liberation schools and those known as Bangladesh rural advancement committee (Brac) schools.  

Liberation schools were set up across Southern Africa during the wars of liberation. They often used semi-trained teachers, taught appropriate subjects and skills, had a minimum of resources and specifically developed textbooks presenting alternative history and interpretation. They usually had a strong production arm through which children learned farming and other productive skills. Such schools were marginalised after independence by the elite.

Community involvement
The Brac schools were developed successfully in Bangladesh since the 1970s. They are usually small, made of local materials and have no fences, allow considerable community involvement in the curriculum and are staffed with local, usually young, female teachers who have undergone short but intensive training in classroom pedagogy and management.

The teaching is exclusively in home language to grade three, using low-cost, locally produced teaching and learning materials with a strong focus on appropriate cultural material and oral tradition. Numeracy is based on scenarios that are relevant to the pupils. The aim is to ensure that by grade three all pupils can read, write, enumerate and understand their culture and heritage.

These options have in common the use of community-based primary teachers who have had limited but appropriate training, a mix of children of various ages, and multiple forms of support from the community. This includes bringing in community members to work with the pupils, facilitated by teachers, which allows for lessons built around traditional stories, recognition and use of plants and traditional environmental management methods.

Home language is used and production and education are closely aligned so that indigenous knowledge is further encouraged and harnessed. Textbooks are in the mother tongue, cost little and are often produced in the community. In addition, parents feel free to engage with the school, where they are also tutored in how to support their children's homework and school work.

I believe that with these foundations, laid in primary schools that valorise traditional ways and knowledge, secondary education would also be more soundly rooted. In addition, the schooling system needs to be properly funded and resourced, teachers need to be trained appropriately, with multiple entry points into the profession and explicit political support is needed of teachers and the important role they play in society. This is essential for attracting committed young people to the teaching profession. Without a dedicated cadre of appropriately trained teachers and school managers, schooling will not improve.  

The accountability of schools also needs to be increased. There are various approaches that can be used, from the annual, externally moderated testing of pupils at different grade levels to community oversight of schools using graphic dashboards, which use a range of simple indicators to show how well the local school is doing.

Often, this is presented using a range of colours to indicate in red what still needs attention through to green, which shows what has been achieved. These dashboards are easy to understand and can be managed at education district level. Communities can be trained to use these school-performance appraisal methods, which will lead to the ability to hold their schools accountable.

It has been shown that such approaches can lead to rapid improvement in teachers' attendance, a reduction in their abuse of alcohol and an increase in teacher and learner ­performance. The approach requires stronger and empowered communities as well as fully staffed ­education districts with clearly delegated authority, so it fits well with my earlier recommendations.   

If we do not get this right, there will continue to be a haemorrhaging of pupils who have the means — and the better teachers — to independent schools, leaving poorer, ill-educated pupils in the state's primary schools. It is likely to leave public schooling bereft of funding and motivated and moneyed parents — a trend that has been shown in various countries to lead to a decline in public schooling.

We should not take the path down which independent schools become the norm. Such schools tend to teach in English, charge fees that only the wealthier members of the community can afford and promote ethics that are often related to minority views. This has implications for state-building and national unity.

We must act now. Each country, including South Africa, with regional support through such bodies as the Southern African Development Community, needs to undertake research into alternatives to the status quo and test those alternatives — the lack of such tested alternatives is one of our biggest problems in reforming schooling systems. In doing so, pre-colonial and liberationist forms of schooling need to be reviewed for the lessons they can provide in the use of indigenous knowledge, structure, community involvement and teacher preparation.

It should lead to radical changes in the funding, staffing, support, accountability measures, language policy and integration of indigenous knowledge into the curriculum. Without such radical action, I am afraid, we will see our public schooling ­systems continue to slide, with dire economic and social consequences for the continent.

Education development specialist Dr Martin Prew is visiting ­fellow at the University of the ­Witwatersrand's school of education. This is the third and final article in his three-part series on ­"reimagining schooling"

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