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The true state of South Africa’s schools

We wanted to build a school. That was the dream we tossed around in our more ambitious moments, drunk on possibility from the small steps we’d taken with our education non-profit. We’d end every planning session by boldly stating: “And then we build a school.” It became a kind of warcry for our crowdfunded bursary programme. But then we began to wonder if building a school actually was the best use of our efforts. And if not, what should be focusing on instead? 

Inspired by the philosophy of William McCaskill, who champions the concept of “effective altruism”, we tried to forget our preconceptions of what we thought was needed and look at the whole system clearly, from crèche to job market. Our mantra became: “First understand what is, before dreaming of what can be.” 

Immersing ourselves in the education space as outsiders (we’re a collection of friends – entrepreneurs, chefs, lawyers, accountants, wine makers, journalists and doctors) has been fascinating and sobering. 

I began by emailing 50 leading education experts, such as John Volminck, Nic Spauls and Nick Taylor, and asked them what they thought were the biggest issues. I read the papers they sent us and the papers mentioned in the footnotes, and then read the papers mentioned in the footnotes of those papers. 

I read the department of basic education’s Action Plan to 2024, listened to podcasts such as the The Answer Series and Education Matters in South Africa, and contacted a wide range of other NGOs. 

What did I find? Well, it’s complicated. 

The scope is enormous

“The education system is our biggest system in the country,” Giles Gillett, the chief executive of New Leaders Foundation, said in a recent interview. South Africa has nearly 26 000 schools, 400 000 teachers and close to 13-million learners. “Everyone’s been to school, so they all have an opinion around how to fix education. But the logistics behind it are enormous.”

South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world. The gap in test scores between the top 20% and the rest is wider than in almost every other country. On the one side, there are functional, wealthy schools. On the other, which 85% of our students attend, are poorly funded, dysfunctional schools. 

The state of the worst schools is certainly cause for concern. According to the department of education’s 2018 statistics, out of 23 471 public schools, 20 071 have no laboratory, 18 019 have no library, while 16 897 have no internet, 239 have no electricity, and 37 have no sanitation facilities at all. 

What’s interesting to note, however, is that schools don’t fail or thrive based on their resources. It’s the culture that’s more important. Documentary filmmaker Molly Blank, who travelled the country in search of the best-performing schools, said: “Having an inspirational figure at the head of the school will create a community of learning and hold teachers accountable. They understand the power of education to change lives.”

Partners for Possibility has also realised this and seeks to empower school principals from under-resourced schools by partnering them with business leaders.

Lack of literacy

Seventy-eight percent of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. This statistic is mentioned almost everywhere when it comes to the state of our education. It means that four out of five 10-year-olds can’t understand what they’re reading. In Limpopo, this is as high as 91%. In the Eastern Cape it’s 85%. It’s in this early stage that many learners get left behind. 

I couldn’t understand this until I realised they’re all being tested in English, which only 8% of learners have as a home language. Imagine you grow up speaking English, go to school, start learning to read and write and then in grade 4 start having to learn in Venda, which your parents don’t speak so they can’t help you either. You’d have to be a genius to get by.  

The Eastern Cape education department is pioneering mother tongue-based learning in the higher grades, which is encouraging. And a not-for-profit organisation called Funda Wande is experimenting with different teacher training approaches. Importantly, their materials and training are created in the languages the children speak. 

One of the reasons for the poor reading levels, according to education expert Nick Taylor, is that “the universities are not teaching new teachers how to teach reading. We need to get foundation phase teachers to teach reading effectively. Everything else follows from there.”

The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. So the task is clear, we need to improve the quality of our teachers. There are two ways to achieve this: in-service teacher training and improving the actual university courses, what is known as initial teacher education. 

In the 1990s, teaching colleges in South Africa closed down. A few experts have suggested this derailed the system, while others aren’t so sure. Whatever the case, it’s clear that teachers need to be better prepared.

Opportunities after school

Then there’s the issue of school leavers. About one million South Africans write matric exams every year. About 150 000 pass at a level that is acceptable to universities. But there’s only space for 70 000. What becomes of all the school leavers who don’t go to university? 

The department of education understands we need a mindshift. According to their action plan, “While university studies are obviously a noble and important pursuit, alternatives have not received the focus they deserve in schools. In particular, vocational training options within schools and beyond basic education have not been sufficiently available and, when available, were undervalued by many teachers and parents.”

This is a pressing issue. Youth unemployment is staggeringly high while there’s also a skill shortage in many sectors. We need to find a way to address both those issues simultaneously. As Rebecca Davis put it in her podcast Don’t Shoot The Messenger, principals and teachers need to get students to, “believe deeply that a life awaits them beyond school”. 

I haven’t even touched on the undue influence of the unions, government limitations and the shortcomings within early childhood development. Or that poverty, crime and other social issues create a complex environment that makes it difficult for many teachers to do their job. Yet there are reasons to forge on, most clearly that there’s simply no other option.

Reaching our potential

There are some encouraging signs. Firstly, South Africa invests a considerable amount of our GDP in education — as it has since the end of apartheid. In 2019, R5-billion was spent on corporate social responsibility efforts directed at education. Almost everybody realises how important quality education is for our future. We’re just not getting it right, yet. 

I’ve come to see how many passionate South Africans are committed to changing the narrative. Organisations like Jet, Zero Drop Out Campaign, Equal Education, Funda Wande, Spirit Foundation, Nal’ibali, Edufundi and the National Education Collaboration Trust are reasons to feel good. 

We should remember that, every day, teachers do their best with limited resources and a number of inspirational principals continue their battles to transform their schools. Advances in tech are showing potential, with online learning promising new paths for success (although how that will benefit dysfunctional schools and disadvantaged learners remains to be seen), and more learners are in school than ever before.  

That, broadly speaking, is how things currently stand. So what are our dreams of what could be? On our wishlist would be for the department of education to ensure school facilities and infrastructure are up to scratch, the unions to put the interests of students first, schools find a way to develop strong principals, learners to get a proper grasp of their home languages before moving onto English, and learners pursue new avenues of progression from high school to workforce. 

This is much easier said than done, I know. But just because it appears difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be attempted. If we can overcome the obstacles of our own design and learn to pull in the same direction, we might be surprised just how far we can go. We might have a chance to reach our potential.

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Matthew Sterne
Matthew Sterne is a director of Crew for a Cause (http://www.crewforacause.co.za), an education non-profit that pools monthly donations from its members to create bursaries for promising. New members welcome!

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