/ 25 January 2019

Reimagining sites of basic education

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)


Since the late 2000s matrics have had to take two extra compulsory subjects: some form of maths and life orientation. More recently there have been calls to drop life orientation’s compulsory status and to replace it with history. I’ve also heard that there are thoughts of making an indigenous African language compulsory to matric at some point in the future.

It is interesting that the calls for different compulsory matric subjects reflect the dominant political and social concerns of the day. In the 2000s HIV was a major political focus and, voilà, we got compulsory life orientation to educate children about the disease and sexual health.

But our political and social focus has shifted in the 2010s as the younger generation leads the way in reworking our identity as a nation. This naturally plays out in emphasising identity-related subjects such as history and languages. Now that HIV does not get the same political airtime as in the previous decade, the government is apparently happy to consider dropping life orientation’s compulsory matric status and to implement history instead.

But what is going to happen when our political attention shifts again? Are we going to make geography compulsory as climate change and sustainable development become trendy in our politics? Or will it be economics? Or coding? Or philosophy?

I find it concerning that we are so quick to suggest and endorse major changes to our education system for political expedience, without considering alternative ways in which to prioritise and disseminate the subject’s knowledge. Adding or taking away compulsory matric subjects has huge implications for pupils’ educational journey, the relevant subject’s quality, and the education labour market.

How many people qualified as life orientation teachers in the past 10 years? How many life orientation teachers have our schools employed? These teachers will become redundant if history replaces life orientation at a matric level. We will then have a large number of unemployed life orientation teachers or, more likely, the life orientation teachers will be employed to fill the extra history posts, resulting in an inferior form of history being taught in our schools. Compulsory matric subjects create a rigidity that can negatively affect our education system’s ability to adapt to future educational needs.

Our near-religious belief in the power of matric subjects is astounding when we actually look about us.

Last year the Mail & Guardian published a story about a pregnant 15-year-old girl who didn’t realise that having sex at her age could lead to falling pregnant. Many other teenagers have very little understanding about birth control and sexual health. Yet sex education is part of life orientation.

If we cannot even get basic information about human reproduction across effectively with compulsory life orientation, why do we persist in believing that any other compulsory matric subject will be successful in transmitting the knowledge we want our nation to have?

I think our obsession with the perceived power of matric subjects is that we tend to think of the classroom as the only worthwhile site of basic education. This point of view is understandable, but it is limiting our ability to imagine different solutions to knowledge gaps that affect our society.

School is, of course, a vital site of education in a country where a large proportion of the adult population is functionally illiterate. But we can’t look to schools to transmit every single piece of new information that becomes important. Classroom education is, by necessity, limited in the knowledge and skills it can cover in the formal curriculum. We need to create and foster alternative sites and sources of education beyond the classroom.

Take compulsory matric history as an example. As South Africans we tend to have a limited and distorted knowledge of our own history. According to the state, this affects social cohesion. A proposed solution is to make all children study history until matric in the hope that this will contribute to nation-building.

There are some obvious problems with this solution. Even assuming that history will be taught well in all schools (which I seriously doubt), only about 60% of the children who started grade 1 make it through to matric. How will the missing 40% access this information that is so vital that it needs to be covered all the way through school? And what of the majority of the current adult population who did not do history to matric, or who missed out on the newest curriculum? If the project is nation-building, but only a fraction of the nation has this information at hand, it seems unlikely to succeed.

But if we prioritise historical knowledge in our society at large, our approach to sites of historical education changes. If we see it as our responsibility to educate all our citizens, rather than just our children, our solutions can become more imaginative.

Our history is so rich, but credible, informative and relevant material that is easily accessible and understood by the majority of the South African public is scarce. Government and the private sector could surely find some money to create these resources that can target the whole population rather than spending millions on implementing a new compulsory subject that will take decades before it reaches all South Africans, and might get scrapped when it is no longer in vogue.

We could start looking at subsidising and generating more children’s books. Growing up in Mapungubwe, A Day on a Sugar Cane Field and Going to School in the 19th Century are all children’s history books waiting to be written, popularised and read. And although more children’s books are a start, we shouldn’t stop there. Short newspaper inserts, brief videos and simple posters can all convey important information.

Imagine a series of posters with maps showing the migration and location of different Southern African societies put up in bus terminals, airports and taxi ranks. Short pamphlets illustrating pre-colonial trade in Africa could be handed out in malls and markets. Easy infographics explaining concepts such as spatial apartheid or globalisation can be published in newspapers. Two-minute clips can play often on television and radio and be spread via social media. Content could range from topics such as rock art to the story of the names of towns, from the history of religion in South Africa to sport, or whatever else might catch a creator’s fancy.

Imagine different national organisations such as churches, political parties, trade unions, banks and restaurants pooling their resources to create quality history-related material and a series of short workshops and courses that their members and employees are encouraged to read, watch or attend. How many more people would learn more about our history through these networks?

Once we have a variety of accessible sources of education with buy-in from community groups and employers, we can start educating more people about topics beyond history. Parenting, sustainable development, language proficiency, labour law and sexual health are areas we need to work on in our society.

If we have diverse sources of accurate and understandable information, we wouldn’t need to resort to suggesting a new compulsory matric subject when we notice a gap in our collective knowledge and understanding. We could turn to our various sites of education and try to remedy the gap before we tinker with our fragile education system.

When we stop treating different knowledge gaps as isolated problems and rather see them as symptoms of a population with limited opportunities and resources for quality education, then we will be able to start making true inroads in creating an educated and “woke” nation. This will enhance and enrich our classroom-based curriculum and help to stabilise our education system by removing the need for constant curriculum changes.

Maryke Bailey is a history teacher with experience in teacher education, professional development and content and resource creation. These are her own views