Education must get back to basics

Burning issue: Problems in the education system, including being drawn into other political struggles, have led to the torching of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo. (Gallo)

Burning issue: Problems in the education system, including being drawn into other political struggles, have led to the torching of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo. (Gallo)

Three weeks ago, statistician general Pali Lehohla released a report titled Vulnerable Groups Series I: The Social Profile of Youth, 2009-2014. Among the aspects it focused on were employment, education and the receipt of social grants by the youth.

Many people were not surprised by the results, which, among other things, said the youth today are far worse off than their parents, who studied under apartheid.
We should be afraid if the children who started school after 1994 are receiving fewer skills. This is an obvious indictment on our education system.

Commentators voiced their concerns about black youth, in particular, who are the majority in struggling schools.

Are schools failing at what they should be doing? Or is society failing schools and the education system? Education is supposed to be a tool for social justice, a public good to engender skills for many.

The debates about failing education institutions are not new but until we begin to realise the importance of lower grades in basic education, we will never save our children from the consequences of dysfunctional education.

What is unsettling about the basic education problems is that for the entire year we are mum about the recurring harms that surface when the matric results are published. Furthermore, with our obsession with matric results, we are oblivious to learners’ grades before they enter matric.

There are, however, persisting challenges, including concerns about education for all, as well as the debates to ensure that education becomes a leveller in society.

But, arguably, education continues to divide children and their families according to social classes. Township schools and rural schools are under-resourced and many are overcrowded, with unqualified and underqualified teachers.

Frequently, society uses the children as pawns in battles to achieve political ends, as has been seen in various cases. We recently saw how protesting parents in the northern areas of Port Elizabeth chased away their children from school in a bid to get more teachers. And then there are the current protests in Vuwani, Limpopo, where schools are being torched. There is no anger that justifies the killing of children’s dreams by destroying property.

In some of the battles for quality and equality in education, we forget various role-players. Or, more precisely, some role-players intentionally remain hidden. Moreover, when it comes to education, we frequently make misdiagnoses and this will delay the improvement of our basic education sector.

To return to the debate about matric results, we find that, out of all the provinces, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo usually perform the worst.

What is also disconcerting is that we always use a convenient analysis to apportion blame on three aspects: the rural location of the worst-performing provinces, the poverty of parents, and the size of the provinces geographically. These might be true to some extent but we tend to ignore other pertinent issues that might explain the poor results.

Among the major blind spots is the role of the administration of education in provinces. Provincial and district offices that are dysfunctional cannot lead successful schools.

We sometimes experience constant staff changes in these offices and new personnel are not able to continue with previously set objectives and visions.

Many schools have deeper structural problems and more radical reforms are needed to change them, including more funding. We all know about the necessary involvement of all role-players, including parents but, without the guidance of committed and dedicated education administrators, schools will become worse and poor families will find themselves abandoned by an education system that marginalises them. Much has been done to improve basic education in South Africa and we need to celebrate this.

But we should be cautious about celebrating a 60% pass rate and instead should think about what becomes of the 40% who do not make it. When many poor pupils fail matric, they are doomed to a life of unemployment, which will result in the continuation of the vicious cycle of poverty.

Society still has to see an improvement in post-school training for pupils who do not make it in matric – an area where the provinces should invest more. The post-school system should be a boon for those who have completed schooling, for those who did not, and for those who never went to school.

The country’s technical vocational education and training colleges have been established to serve post-school youths and adults. These need to be well supported. The provision of a good post-school education system will go a long way towards addressing the challenges linked to education improvement.

We should concentrate on equipping our teachers to be able to teach pupils through a humanising pedagogy. They should be able to deal with difficulties such as pupils who repeat classes and who might end up dropping out of school. Teachers should not be alone in the fight against turning around pupil performance in the classroom. The government needs to strengthen the role of its education officials so that, in turn, they can devise ways to empower teachers.

We cannot, year after year, let chaos prevail in failing schools. There is no future for the children if we cannot prepare a solid present.

We also need to look at the bigger picture, rather than laying the blame at the doorstep of failing schools. Our children need to be prepared right from grade R and it will be committed officials who will pave the road for conscientious teachers and diligent pupils. We will never address the challenges in the worst-performing provinces until we attend to the specific problems.

Without the commitment of all role-players, educators will continue to teach doomed youths.

  Professor Vuyisile Msila is the head of Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies. He writes in his personal capacity

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