Equalising the Unequal Starts with Education

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 26 Jan 2009

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Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

The South African dream is that opportunities should not be defined by initial conditions, be they race, gender or class. The Constitution provides the right to education as an important foundational element of reaching this dream. Government has developed an important set of initiatives aimed at improving the school readiness of children, thus potentially providing a fair start for all South Africans. Questions, however, remain as to whether these initiatives will be able to rectify past policy failures as well as provide a solid foundation for future learners. 

The post-apartheid educational curriculum offered the promise of a qualitative leap from apartheid education. Motivating for the adoption of the Outcome Based Education (OBE) system, its supporters argued that it’s bold vision would provide a systemic intervention that would produce not only critical and engaged citizens, but better prepare students for the worlds of tertiary study and work.

Today, there is wide recognition that this promise has yet to be achieved, and significant questions remain on whether OBE is the vehicle for transforming our educational system. The failure is a large one, evidenced in South African learners coming last in international tests for maths and English. Important studies have indicated the significance of school management, the availability of skilled teachers and improved funding as points of interventions. However, these interventions will rest on the success of interventions to prepare children for schooling. 

‘School readiness’ – like much of the OBE curriculum – has ambiguous conceptual meanings. This makes an operational definition of the term difficult and measurement subjective. The assumption in the design however is that at age 7, all children would have reached the milestones to enter the schooling system. In terms of the National Curriculum Statement, learners on entering the school system are required to demonstrate competence in a range of areas, such as the ability to sort shapes and to count up to ten. There are of course, softer but potentially more important indicators of school readiness, related to the emotional and psychological readiness of learners to enter school and succeed. 

Government’s policy has been to increase the age for entering grade one from six years old to seven years old. Partly, this was a response to tight budget pressures in the mid to late 1990s. The important assumption guiding the educational system was that learners would be ready for schooling. However, the realities were that poor households often lacked the finances to enrol learners into Early Childhood Development (ECD) or Grade R (reception year) classes. Moreover, there has historically been a lack of good quality facilities, providing training consistent with the approved curriculum in poor areas. The implications are profound. Without the solid foundation to enter schooling, poorer learners are at an immediate disadvantage, which the passage of time and training might not undo. In stark policy terms, government has the task of undoing 15 years of this disadvantaged start for learners currently in the system.

In response to these criticisms, government has introduced a plan to provide Grade R in all public schools by 2010. Assuming that government does manage to universally provide Grade R by 2010, disadvantages will still be systemic.

The premise of the curriculum is that schools will have access to teaching materials, skilled teachers and good management. These circumstances are of course optimal requirements, and teachers can achieve good outcomes even in difficult circumstances. However, the current system of funding provides for less funding per child in Grade R, than Grade 1.  This is estimated at around 70% of the costs for leaners in primary school. It is thus doubtful that even if provisions becomes universal, that initial investments by government will be sufficient to improve quality at the start of schooling. 

Government in its defence argues that its funding system aims to focus on poor schools and provide incentives for improved performance.  The policy objective is laudable, as it attempts to provide an incentive for good management and focus on poor schools. 

Whilst one recognises the importance of incentives for performance, the logic of the reform indicates that poorest schools, often the worst managed, will be the last to receive funding from government. However, these are precisely the schools that require the most important interventions.

Adding to the problem is that not all poor children are in schools defined as poor. The current system uses a spatial approach to determine the location of poor schools, yet there is significant movement of students from areas of poor schooling – usually a poor area – to areas with better schooling – usually richer areas. It is thus likely that even with the best intentions, poorer children will be less prepared for entering schooling than their richer peers. 

Operationally, the challenges of reaching the targets are significant. In 2008, the Department of Education indicated that nationally it had only reached 50% of its target. Consequently, over the next three years, approximately 500 000 learners will need to be provided with access to Grade R. In addition, there are significant concerns about systems to pay practitioners, upgrade qualifications, as well as the adequacy of funding across provinces. Even if these problems are resolved, there is the systemic question of how after 2010 Grade R will be funded, with decisions urgently needed to ensure sustainability of the programme.  

Even when Grade R education is provided, the curriculum statement is premised on fully equipped and well run ECD centres and government schools. Rather than lament the absence of these conditions, strategies need to be developed to arrive at these conditions. Otherwise, the design has no resonance in practical realities. It is highly unlikely that current funding norms will meet the requirements for adequate teaching materials and facilities. 

Furthermore, information matters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that parents neither understand that Grade R exists, nor are conversant with the policy. The assumption might just be that children starting in Grade 1 would start from the beginning, again replicating an unequal start for many children. Here again, inequality is reproduced. 

The deeper question though is whether Grade R should be seen as a reception year at all, but rather as the first year of formal schooling itself. This is particularly important given that the provision of ECD whilst improving, is far from universal. Consequently, for many children, Grade R would be the first interaction with formal schooling. Giving realisation to the idea that Grade R is indeed the first year of schooling could fundamentally shift resources over a generation at the start of the formal educational systems. Coupled with interventions in the ECD sector it could provide an important foundation for a society with widening opportunities for all, but specifically for those children we anticipate on reaching adulthood will make the leap out of structural poverty.

The central question government needs to answer, given these interventions, is whether the educational system is breaking the cycle of initial conditions that determine opportunities?

Arriving at a positive answer to this question requires Grade R and ECD to become ‘apex priorities’ for our country. This priority is needed because intervening early and investing early provides the best returns in education.

In a high inequality country like South Africa, intervening early is even more critical if poor children are to achieve. For instance, it would make the difference in poor children succeeding in Maths Paper III (covering geometry and statistics), rather than being streamed into Math Literacy (a rudimentary training in maths).

Interventions will also need to take place earlier, with the implementation of government’s programmes for ECD from 0-4 years requiring adequate funding, societal support and political leadership.

Potentially, this is a win-win situation, with public resources not only preparing children for formal schooling, but creating much needed and socially useful jobs in a country with high unemployment. Ultimately, the effectiveness of the programme will be determined at the school level. Potentially, that single outcome will determine whether we become an inclusive society, or remain a society deeply divided not only by our assets and incomes, but by the opportunities we provide to our children. 

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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