Of the myriad drawbacks, challenges and gross injustices shrouding modern-day South African society it can reasonably be argued that large-scale unemployment, sweeping poverty, gross mismanagement of resources, crude modes of corruption, extensive forms of criminality and abuse, and widespread bigoted behavioural patterns are of the most distinguishable as the “new” democracy enters into its third decade. Towering above yet intricately intertwined in all of this is the public schooling system, now in quite serious disrepute for producing arguably the lowest attainment levels in core subject areas anywhere in the world today.
The countrywide quest perpetually underway to reverse the unfortunate situation – for the express purpose of raising national attainment levels – habitually start with the present state of our public schooling. This, in turn, quite often brings to light the deficiencies and thus (neglected) responsibilities of education authorities.
To put it simply: children whose teachers are untrained, unskilled and unprepared for the task at hand will generally not excel in their schooling. Children attending schools (mal)administered by inexperienced, visionless leaderships, will assuredly experience a variety of drawbacks as they trickle down the institutional hierarchal scale.
Then, children whose teachers and principals do not enjoy the interest, support and acknowledgment of district officials will fall victim to the consequences that may arise from such an unhealthy condition. Rural teachers, stressed-out, disheartened, isolated and neglected as they are, often raise this issue, noting that when officials do make an appearance, they expect business to be near faultless.
Low attainment levels are questioned, as they should be, but the blame seems to be apportioned squarely to the domain of the classroom itself. If the teacher is sluggish or ill-prepared, then the shoes must be worn by those they best fit. Furthermore, there has been a notable decline in physical education instruction across public schools.
Yet specialists argue that primary school physical education can make a unique contribution to the overall educational experience of learners. It supports not only the child’s physical, but also their cognitive, emotional and social development. Hand-eye co-ordination, motor skills, team-building, group work, self-confidence, response time, precision, accuracy and more can in this way be stimulated and advanced in a fashion that is enjoyable to all.
On the other hand, it will be somewhat neglectful to think that prospective solutions to the current impasse can only be found in the immediate, formally constituted educational sphere itself. Research has shown that children’s wellbeing is pivotal to their intellectual development. Rural girl schoolchildren with little awareness of their individual rights, and with little or no recourse to social or police services, often become victims of sexual abuse, adding to rising levels of teen pregnancies, the point at which many of them leave school. Children who live in fear and under emotionally stressful conditions (such as those habitually brought about by hunger, severe destitution, social insecurity and aggression, including gangsterism, drug abuse and domestic violence) commonly encounter learning difficulties at school. More pertinently, perhaps, children who are regularly exposed to acts of violence, or are victims of violence, or engage in acts of violence, have added emotional, attitudinal and behavioural complications in the schooling environment. Children who experience peer rejection, or the absence of good, supportive friendships, are likely to feel scorned, unwanted and abandoned.
According to United States scholars Mary Gifford-Smith and Celia Brownell, rejected children tend to engage more in hostile and unprovoked aggression, which can exert a negative effect on school performance and school life generally. Marginalisation and exclusion of children, the Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University in Australia notes, lead to feelings of sadness, anger, depression, of not belonging, of not wanting to attend school and of having little trust in anybody apart from family members.
Susan Hallam finds that music has the capacity to increase emotional sensitivity, vital to the child’s emotional intelligence. The British scholar writes that music can increase social cohesion in the class, and inspire better social adjustment and more positive attitudes, particularly in low-ability, alienated schoolchildren. Hallam illustrates how singing brings health benefits, improving the immune system, breathing, posture and mood. Music-making can lead to a sense of achievement, boost self-discipline, as well as self-esteem and confidence. Hallam emphasises that participation in musical groups promotes friendships and social skills; social networking; a sense of belonging; team work; a sense of accomplishment; co-operation; responsibility; commitment; mutual support; bonding to meet group goals; and increased concentration. It also provides an important outlet for relaxation.
Like music, free-style dance classes offer vital prospects for developing learner self-confidence through creative activity. It also allows, quite simply, for children from economically depressed backgrounds to experience some harmless entertainment and shared enjoyment, which can be sorely lacking in schools plagued by brutality and abuse. Moreover, it can create a sense of “cohesion,” not only among the learners but also with their teachers. The fostering of “social cohesion” is a fundamental goal of the South African Constitution.
It is commonly said that a hungry child cannot learn. Studies furthermore illustrate that children who customarily go to bed hungry, and therefore lack the basic nutritional necessities needed for their cerebral development, will most probably not make it through or beyond the public schooling system. Olivia Engelbrecht writes that poor nutrition can cause deficits in attention span, sensory impairments and, in the end, poor school attendance. She highlights that about half of South African children have a reduced capacity to learn, compelling many eventually to leave school as a result of underperformance.
Schoolchildren whose caregivers have not received or completed basic schooling are at a marked disadvantage when it comes to homework, assignment and project completion, and test and exam preparation, all of which are fundamental to the learning process. Children whose parents and family members cannot read or do not read regularly or do not place a high premium on reading generally do not develop a love for reading.
Yet children simply love being read to, provided the material is appropriate and stimulating. Reading not only arouses the imagination: in stimulating inventiveness reading leads to increased brain development, thus providing an enhanced platform for the reception, retention and calling up of crucial facts, figures, concepts, ideas and knowledge.
Children who are not exposed to reading or do not engage in regular reading can be prone to becoming stunted mentally, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and creatively. In other words, reading boosts intellectual receptiveness, empowering children to preserve and process new encounters and proficiencies.
Here we cannot ignore the efforts the education department, in collaboration with many other organisations, has and continues to undertake. Objectives in this regard, so it appears, need to be broadened as well as sharpened. Insofar as reading certainly brings knowledge, awareness needs to be raised on how reading enhances intellectual capacity, which is key to children’s ability to communicate more meaningfully, logically, analytically and critically. Reading at the same time enhances the child’s listening skills, mandatory for successful (classroom) communication.
Children who are made aware of and embrace the values of concern, devotion, care and compassion are better empowered to contribute to mutual flourishing. Australian scholar Stan van Hooft reasons that caring about others motivates not only the principle of justice but also the principles of humanity. Accordingly, good, meaningful values education can advance the broader educational process as well as the overall wellbeing of the schoolchild. Children who display higher levels of wellbeing, contentment and happiness are better empowered – psychologically, spiritually and emotionally – to deal with the pedagogical and intellectual demands of school life. As philosopher Ariyaratne sees it, the formation of good friendships and healthy relations among children encourages the exchange of life stories. Such a process, he concludes, is profoundly valuable because it inspires children to realise “that they are living in one world and they have a lot of important things in common, both in their present situation and in their future”. (In stark contrast, South African scholarship is predominantly centred on highlighting children’s cultural and identity differences.)
The hampering effect of material and human deprivation on education is there for all to see. On this point alone, it could be argued that the improvement of formal public education is, in essence, dependent on the upgrading of the economic situation of the majority of the country’s citizens. If we agree on this point, then the logical subtraction would be that South Africa’s education system will only begin to show real, positive change when high indigent markers, on individual and communal levels, are effectively addressed and notably reduced. On the other hand, it could be claimed that human development, broadly defined, essentially is incumbent upon a good, high-quality education system; that it is only through and with education, per se, that a better life for all can truly become a reality. And so there seems to be a distinct quandary, a catch-22, that could confound the present impasse.
It readily appears, however, that whichever way we consider the situation, education, in itself, remains a powerful, if not the most powerful lever to lift the country decisively out of its current depths of darkness, desperation and disorder. The sensible, overall conclusion that arises here suggests that the provision of good-quality public education, important as it is, cannot be relegated purely to the long list of responsibilities resting on the shoulders of an already struggling education department. Because education is a replication of our social system, it must become a social concern, imbued with broad social consciousness and aimed at the greater good of all.
Dr Clive W Kronenberg is a senior researcher in the education and social sciences faculty at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and a co-ordinator of the South-South Educational Scholarly Collaborative Initiative. This piece is based largely on findings from educational field research in rural areas. The funding support of CPUT (URF) and the NRF is acknowledged.