Learning does not occur in a vacuum
Much has been spoken and written about poor academic outcomes, problems in schools, the textbook debacle and the general failure of the different education stakeholders to deliver on their mandates to provide a quality education to all South Africa's pupils. Raising these issues is important, because it creates awareness of what is not working in the schooling system.
However, the public discourse on education, especially because it is portrayed in the media, has at times degenerated into a deficit debate. This debate readily identifies problems and apportions blame, yet does not go far enough in deepening our understanding of what the problems in education are and how they can be addressed.
The public education system is indeed in a crisis. More specifically, schooling in South Africa's urban township and rural communities is in crisis and many of the problems there have already been pointed out to us through the media.
This portrayal of such problems seems to instil public despondency and a sense of gloom about improving the educational opportunities and life chances of all the children and young people in our country.
What we need in South Africa is an inclusive education dialogue between all stakeholders to try to understand the complexities of schooling more deeply and identify the problems in it. The dialogue would need to be both descriptive and analytic. It should strive to build a shared understanding of what the problems are and why they exist. The dialogue should also be solution oriented and seek to build consensus and a collective commitment to action.
An inclusive education dialogue must bring more voices to the table. Academics, government officials, policymakers and union leaders are primarily driving the public discourse on education at present and their voices shape public opinion and influence policy.
So what about the missing voices? In many communities, conversations are taking place about the problems in education and ways to address them. These kinds of dialogues are happening in places such as the Eastern Cape — one of the provinces in which the problems in education are well known.
Here, parents and community members, principals and teachers, non-governmental organisations, students and other civic organisation representatives are participating in the education dialogue. Their conversations revolve around how they can more effectively support children and improve their social and academic outcomes.
This dialogue seeks to confront the harsh realities of schooling in the province. Parents share their belief in the importance of education as well as some of the challenges of getting their children "ready to learn". This includes their efforts to put food on the table, concerns about the health and safety of their children and their sacrifices to ensure that children meet the school requirements in terms of uniforms, fees and educational materials.
With deepening poverty, some of the basic needs of children are not adequately met in the home and are brought into the school. In many instances, pupils come to school in poor health, are cognitively underprepared to learn and sometimes display behavioural problems in class.
The principals and teachers discuss how their schools have to take on the additional responsibility of addressing some of the challenges that affect learning and development.
They point out that teaching and learning cannot be disconnected from the social realities of children's lives. They argue that these challenges affect the academic outcomes and often make their work more difficult.
Compounding this situation is the absence of the basic conditions for schools to function effectively. They should be provided by the education department and include adequate and safe school buildings in which children can learn, sufficient and effective learning materials in schools and the payment of teachers. These conditions cannot be used as an excuse for the lack of teacher professionalism and commitment, but they do affect the work and morale of teachers.
The conversations reveal that schooling is a complex process and that school improvement cannot adopt an exclusive focus on academic outcomes that ignores the contextual realities in which teaching, learning and child development occur. They also show us that the school, on its own, cannot be expected to solve all society's ills.
What is needed is a collective effort that supports the cognitive and psychosocial development of children. In essence, what these conversations are suggesting is that school improvement cannot be effectively attained and sustained unless it is located in the broader context of community development and support.
So why do we need this dialogue? Because the problems in education are complex and multifaceted, the formulation of effective and sustainable solutions must involve as many voices as possible.
In the dialogues here in the Eastern Cape, we are seeing a move from talk to action. There are a number of examples. Some of the parents involved in these dialogues are part of the Bethelsdorp school governing body forum, which represents 55 primary and 17 high schools and was one of the applicants in the recent court case to fill teaching posts in schools that have been vacant for the past 18 months.
Another example of action is the Manyano network of community schools, which has adopted a dual focus — not only on teaching and learning, but also on addressing some of the social challenges that affect these core functions. The schools do this by building a network of support around children and their families. A number of civil society organisations also participate in these dialogues and are active in providing support to schools and communities. Their activities range from academic to social support programmes for pupils and their families.
What is encouraging about these dialogues and subsequent actions is that the participants refuse to yield to a sense of helplessness that can so easily creep in when confronted with some of the challenges that schools and communities face. A bold vision for the future of education in the country and a sense of urgency in dealing with some of the challenges is what drives their conversations.
Their voices and those of others working in schools and communities across the country need to be part of an inclusive education dialogue — not only in identifying the problems in education, but also in crafting and implementing the solutions.
Dr Allistair Witten is director of the Centre for the Community School in the education faculty of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University