Editorial: Tablets are not toilets
This week we report from iNciba in the Cofimvaba district, Eastern Cape, where computer tablets are being innovatively used in teaching and learning. This can only benefit the children of this isolated area. The technology works but, as with so many schools in South Africa, it’s working in a constraining space.
In one Cofimvaba school, Zamuxolo, some pupils are crammed into mud rondavels. Their ablution facilities are pit toilets. They often have no electricity. Textbooks are kept in a corrugated iron kitchen to save precious classroom space for pupils. The Zamuxolo children enjoy using their tablets and learn a lot from doing so. But such technology is a poor and, at best, temporary distraction from an environment that is not conducive to learning.
Zamuxolo is no exception. Nationally, four out of five schools are dysfunctional. Last year’s annual national assessments found the average maths mark among Eastern Cape Grade 9 pupils was 11%. It was 6.5% in Limpopo.
And those numbers are for the pupils who attend school. Other studies show that in areas with bad sanitation girls start dropping out soon after the onset of puberty, because of unsafe and inefficient toilets. There is a direct correlation and a causal relationship between infrastructure and attendance.
Tablets in schools are a great way to alleviate many of the ills that stem from bad governance: a failure to deliver textbooks, teachers who lack either the skill or means to teach children, and a lack of basic teaching equipment. But tablets are not toilets. They cannot replace roofs or walls or electricity. They do not provide clean water, nor do they function as desks.
In education spending relative to gross domestic product, South Africa is in one of the top positions worldwide. We spend, but implementation seldom happens. None of our post-apartheid governments have been able to change things much. We are still losing generations to bad education, when education was supposed to help lift people out of poverty.
We have made all the mistakes we can afford – and then some. We certainly cannot afford, for another school year, a president or education minister or provincial education MEC unable to fix this education catastrophe.