Pupils Speak Out: A platform for stories written by pupils

Children protesting. (David Harrison, M&G)

Children protesting. (David Harrison, M&G)

South Africa’s 12-million pupils are commonly believed to be, and portrayed as, helpless victims of an education system in crisis. That they are passive receivers of information and doomed to a jobless future.

These beliefs aren’t completely wrong.

How could pupils not be seen as victims when more than 11 000 of the 24 000 public schools still only have pit toilets? When recent research found that 79% of grade six maths teachers have a content knowledge level below the grade six level. When a shortage of schools results in overcrowded classrooms of sometimes more than 100 pupils.
When hundreds of teachers in the Eastern Cape work without receiving a salary.

These are barriers to education that pupils, mostly black and living in rural areas or townships, face once they enter the classroom. But there are scores more obstacles that they face outside it. Teenage pregnancy and contracting HIV are two of these. Family demands to care for the home and younger siblings is third. Gang violence experienced on the way to and from school is yet another.

These are some of the reasons only 562 112 pupils registered for the 2013 matric exams despite 1?261?827 starting grade one in 2002.

They face hardship. But they are not helpless.

Rising against adversity
Each year the media profiles pupils who, despite adversity, have become lighthouses of academic success. They shouldn’t have had to push back so hard against the broken desks, the nonexistent textbooks, the classrooms without teachers, but they did, and they won.

Some even tried to help their fellow pupils by alerting civil society to their plight, potentially opening themselves to risk of retribution. They protested, they researched, they wrote letters. Again, some of them won.

Surely not the learning conditions so many had fought so hard for, they thought. What strength and vision was in them to move them to take this action?

You could say that they are unique. But you could also say they have the kind of strength and vision we all have inside us. An innate strength ignited in some but smothered in others through everyday violations of dignity.

Some of them knew that the Constitution specifically protects the right to a basic education for all South Africans. Others knew from the media that their plight was not isolated or insignificant. They all believed in themselves – enough to take risks, speak out and keep going.

But many of the pupils I have spoken to do not know how wronged they are by the learning conditions they endure every day. Disempowered and marginalised, they do not know the power of their own agency, either.

This is where the problem lies.

If all pupils were at least aware of what ­constitutes a basic education they would have a frame of reference to hold their own learning conditions up to.

If they were included in the discussions about solutions for the education crisis, then their power would increase. Their voices would be so loud it would be impossible to silence them. South Africa should acknowledge young people’s voices and agency.

A platform to share
Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which South Africa has ratified, says countries “shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child”.

The media needs to work harder to include quotes from children in their stories because children can “contribute to national debate and discussion”, as nongovernmental organisation Media Monitoring Africa says. The media should do this in a way that challenges negative stereotypes of children, but also respects their best interests.

The Mail & Guardian has launched a platform for comment pieces and news articles written by pupils. These will be published every Thursday on the M&G site.

I will select stories that pupils submit about their experiences at schools and publish them as part of the Pupils Speak Out series. Mail me at Victoriaj@mg.co.za to share your story.

The stories that have been submitted so far are on topics ranging from drugs and weapons in schools to corporal punishment and rape.

These young people have ideas and solutions for the education crisis, which has the most immediate effect on them. Let us listen to their ideas. Let us include them in the planning for a better education system. Let us ask them what help they need, and let us always prioritise the thing that will help them when we can’t – advantage through the acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Listen to them.

If you are a pupil who would like to contribute to the series, or a teacher who has a pupil who would like to contribute, please email victoriaj@mg.co.za

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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