The Real Reasons the Education System is Broken

By Glenn Ashton · 2 Oct 2012

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Picture: shlin1/Flickr
Picture: shlin1/Flickr

Recently government ministers were asked what schools their children attend. Only Angie Motshekga, Minister of Education, responded, admitting her children attended a private institution. Everyone else refused to answer, arguing that this was private information, which was not in the public interest. Their silence spoke volumes.

The state spends approximately R16 000 on each learner every year. The education budget devours more than 20% of our national budget as the biggest single budget item. If the problem is not a lack of money, then just what has gone wrong?

I am a trustee of an educational trust for learners from disadvantaged communities, which provides bursaries for learners to attend private or former Model C schools. Nearly 90% of students in our programme have exhibited serious learning difficulties with almost 80% dropping out of the programme or out of the school system entirely. The ideal of a poor, yet well-adjusted and intelligent student eagerly waiting to grasp opportunity is a myth.

Despite providing the best educational options available, the overwhelming majority of the learners in our programme have not benefited accordingly. Analysing this complex problem has led us to several conclusions.

Firstly, learning difficulties are on the rise globally. Research points to increased social stressors as the main cause. Overexposure to prurient, shock driven, sound-bite media doesn’t help. The reality is that even well adjusted middle class kids experience unprecedented levels of stress.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that many, possibly the majority of South African township kids experience massive stress levels. Many communities are dysfunctional. Some estimates state that more than 60% of South African children are physically or sexually abused. The result is trauma, possibly to the level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or worse.

One learner in our programme came from a gangster-ridden community in Cape Town. By eleven he had missed months of school to care for a younger sibling while his alcoholic mother was at the shebeen. He saw his best friend shot and killed by a gang that included his friend’s father. He had been sexually abused by a family acquaintance and had experienced constant hunger and other deprivation.

In hindsight it is unsurprising that, despite serious educational intervention including a small remedial private school, art therapy, psychotherapy and extra lessons, we couldn’t fix this child. He simply could not concentrate on schoolwork; he had real time, real life preoccupations. He dropped out of school at the age of seventeen before completing Grade 9. What of his future?

We have faced a major problem in getting township learners into ‘good’ schools. Despite being fully funded, with all their learning challenges the answer is too often ‘no’. This month, across South Africa, many disadvantaged learners are doubtless experiencing similar rejection from former Model C schools. Obliged to include some black learners, but still able to exclude others, these schools pick and choose the candidates they want. They keep their classes small and their standards high.

Where do the rejected students end up? The children with the biggest learning problems, with the greatest needs for remedial teaching eventually end up at the least resourced township schools, which are not permitted to reject them. This is logic turned on its head.

It is broadly recognised that education, particularly at school levels, is in crisis. The exclusion of learners by good schools exacerbates this crisis and needs to be legally challenged. Not only must these schools open their doors to the needy, but perhaps more importantly they must share their expertise with schools which need upliftment.

Our best resourced schools must participate in order to solve the problem; they cannot continue to operate in silos of insularity. They can use their resources – their audiovisual equipment and sports halls – to host workshops and lessons aimed at addressing our crisis.

We cannot consign worthy children to a third rate education by keeping the gates of privilege closed to admission to all but the select few – this is a recipe for national failure. The results are already manifest. Even those perversely privileged enough to get a good education will be cursed to enter a world beset by such profound intellectual inequality as to be fundamentally compromised.

We must never forget that the most important educational resources are neither the buildings and library nor even computers. Everything centres on good teachers, providing a sound pedagogical foundation. The best schools attract the best teachers. These are usually products of good education who wish to share the gift of education. They are by nature generous humans who are passionate about their profession. Recruiting teachers from this cadre holds many solutions to the failed system of teacher training programmes.

Our educational system is dysfunctional as a result of past planning failures – Outcomes Based Education being a case in point. And why do we retain a system where destitute parents are forced to battle to afford school uniforms and other useless paraphernalia that would be far better spent on real educational tools like extra maths skills? For that matter is the current passion for maths and science pedagogically sound? What about extended technical or entrepreneurial training?

Possibly one of the biggest wasted resources that is in our midst is within our significant immigrant population, amongst which are scattered some exceptional teachers. Zimbabwe had, and still arguably has, an educational system that runs at a fraction of the cost of ours, yet has produced exceptionally well-educated individuals. But it is nearly impossible for these teachers to enter our educational system as teachers, reprising the difficulty of doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals to gain legal employment here. Why do we refuse to enable these productive people to contribute to their adopted land?

Despite all of this we must acknowledge some fantastic educationalists in our system, often working against almost impossible odds and quite often triumphing. The problem is that success is almost a guaranteed recipe for failure. Any poor township school that manages, through sheer guts and hard work, to achieve the wonders that some schools do, getting matric pass rates of not just above 90% but more amazingly, by really educating and nurturing their students, enabling them to become entire, successful people, will inevitably transform itself into a sought after institution. This success may swamp any but the most robust educational structures. If success is not supported, then failure will surely follow.

Finally we must repeatedly enquire whether our educational curriculum is suitable for this age, the early 21st Century, a time of constant change? Is it right, or even correct to have a curriculum fixated on an authoritarian model of imparting academic skills? Learners who do miraculously manage to matriculate from the present system are consigned to a world lacking in opportunities.

What about teaching our children to build houses, businesses, to grow food and build social resilience in this age of change and uncertainty? How about teaching them to think for themselves rather than be slaves to a system built on inequality and authoritarianism, of economic and political domination by the few over the many?

I recently heard an old, experienced teacher - one of the best we have - ask an important question. Why, he wanted to know, has the government with their considerable resources not solved the crisis in education? Do they not want to create empowered citizens? The look in his eyes left me with no doubt as to what he believes the answer to this question to be.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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