Is selective learning the way to go?

With yesterday’s announcement of the 2016 matriculation results, the discourse is being dominated by a fixation on the results, with provincial governments across the nation patting themselves on the back over perceived improvements. To be clear, results are of course important and progress should be acknowledged but we cannot simply be content with analysing slight increases here and marked decreases there. If the results reveal anything at all it is that location still determines the quality of education learners receive and this naturally influences the outcomes.

Although it is true that some learners and schools in the lower quintiles have defied expectations by achieving excellent results, learners in the higher quintiles still generally have advantages that enhance their performance. We simply cannot ignore the fact that, in addition to having motivated and qualified educators, providing a quality education also relies a great deal on access to resources and facilities which are often not found in rural and township schools.

Instead of simply looking at our learners as numbers, we also need to consider their learning environment and whether this supports or hinders their academic performance.

One of the ways in which I believe we can address the disparities between our public schools is by introducing a model of the grammar schools found in the United Kingdom. Grammar schools, or selective schools as they are sometimes called, are state-funded schools that admit learners based on criterion known as “selection”. To simplify this explanation, imagine a grammar school as being somewhere in the middle of public and private schools.

At the age of 11, learners undergo entrance exams that determine whether they qualify for this type of education or not. Over time, the purpose of these schools is to provide academically gifted learners from poor backgrounds with the kind of superior education which families could not afford. There are 163 such schools in Britain today.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is a proponent of these schools, which should not surprise as she is a product of grammar school education herself. She believes that grammar could be a tool to achieve upward social mobility, which is something our education system should also seek to achieve. An education should enable learners to improve their social status and provide them with tools to “climb” their way up the ladder. I do not believe our current systems achieve this for learners in rural and in other disadvantaged backgrounds.

Grammar schools are not without their  critics as education experts in Britain argue that they do not benefit poor learners and that the focus of government should be to improve education in all schools and not just in some. I agree with the latter view but I believe South Africa can establish a model that will benefit our poor. We can achieve this by reserving places in such schools for learners from poor communities only. I believe the British erred by providing this schooling to all qualifying children. Children from poor backgrounds need these interventions most. Our goal with such schools should be to provide talented learners who cannot afford a private school education with the opportunity to access an education superior to that in their local schools.

I share the view that a government needs to make certain that all public schools are equipped to provide an excellent education so that the prospects of all learners are improved, wherever they are from. But, we are simply not there yet. While we work to make this a reality, we cannot fail an entire generation of poor black learners just because they live in the “wrong” parts of the country and cannot afford to pay for a better education. Government, therefore, needs to remove these learners from their environment, place them in boarding houses and create grammar schools for these young bright minds so that they can go as far as their talents will take them.

Some might argue that we should rather place such learners in good existing public schools. This is fair but I am concerned with the quantity of learners, existing schools may not be able to accommodate. You may also be intrigued by my promotion of boarding school education. The fact is learners from poor backgrounds have hurdles at home that privileged learners do not have. Poor learners often live with families who are unable to support them with their school work, they have exhausting chores and responsibilities that take preference over their academics and in some parts of the country these learners have to walk as much as 15km to reach their nearest school. We need to save this generation of children and grammar schools could be the answer.

Mondli Zondo (@MoZondo) is a Mandela Washington Fellow and he writes in his personal capacity.

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