Low Expectations from Lower Education?

By Glenn Ashton · 21 May 2013

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Picture: Children from Lukhanyo Primary School, Zwelihle Township, Hermanus courtesy Godot13/Wikimedia Commons.
Picture: Children from Lukhanyo Primary School, Zwelihle Township, Hermanus courtesy Godot13/Wikimedia Commons.

It is difficult to be positive about our educational system, supported by a government department that consumes more than a fifth of our total budget. Despite this we languish at the bottom of the international league in maths and science. School facilities are dismal. The educational system in several provinces is in tatters. Additionally, the Minister of Lower Education, Angie Motshekga, is regularly at odds with the dominant teachers union, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), as well as with public opinion.

Throw into this a mess of different systems and streams, together with a barrage of court cases involving various aspects of education, and a picture emerges of a seriously dysfunctional educational system.

While some claim we have a two-tier educational system, in reality it is more like a four-tier system. At the bottom are what are termed the “mud” schools, although they are not always made from mud – some are permanent brick structures, others prefabricated and yes, some are mud. It is not so much the structures; “mud” is more metaphorical than actual, describing a system mired in disarray.

Inadequate sanitation, security and water supply are one manifestation. From an educational perspective, overcrowding, lack of desks or suitably qualified teachers, books, let alone libraries, all condemn youngsters to a muddy future. The staff at these schools become so demoralised that they are often absent on duty, if present at all. No school can succeed without functioning staff. The failure within the “mud” schools is a systemic malaise, unresolved nearly 20 years into the democratic transition. 

Equal Education has recently taken on one such case to gain some resolution into the matter of mud education. Moshesh Senior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape was totally dysfunctional, with results to match. Despite repeated attempts at facilitation, this matter is headed to the high court next month. Yet amazingly, there do remain some gems hidden amongst the mud, showing how dedicated staff and involved communities can make a difference.

Next are the majority of state schools, rural and urban. These conventional primary and high schools service mainly the working class and are backbone of the school system. Despite attempts at reformation, such as the outcomes based education, this sector remains a largely uninspired sausage machine, founded upon an outdated 19th century model. The largely meaningless matriculation centred-system extrudes workers into the market as employees, not entrepreneurs.

Despite massive resources thrown into the mix, results remain disappointing. Yes, there are certainly some shining lights in this sector, particularly those where able leadership is at play and where adequate resources – schoolbooks, staff, support structures and sports facilities – are available.

Yet these schools are often hobbled by realities of no-fee structures. Parents are uninvolved and contribute neither in kind nor money. Communities are enmeshed in the social tensions allied with poverty and legacies of apartheid. Children trapped in this situation are less likely to succeed, let alone flourish. Breaking the bonds of illiteracy requires more than just books, it needs a love of reading, of literature. To grasp the importance of numeracy needs more than rote times tables and BODMAS – the application of math needs practical relevance. Teachers and curriculum can assist but the role of involved parents and communities cannot be underestimated.

These missing ingredients are all too often a nagging reminder of the legacy of a generational gap of struggle politics, school boycotts and apartheid era mud schools suffered by parents. One possible answer lies in community solidarity. Recently, a shebeen in the townships of Cape Town gained recognition for booting out regulars early during matric exam revision time so that students could learn in conducive conditions.

This often meant little more than some quiet, a table, a light bulb or a peer to chat to. The results were remarkable and this type of community outreach should be encouraged. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, especially when so many amongst us bear lingering scars, the legacy of apartheid. We must also remember how difficult remediation is within dysfunctional communities. Inculcating proper support conditions for students remains a central challenge.

Next are the former model C schools. While nominally state schools, they are fortified by strong parent and governance structures. Many are long-established institutions with supplementary fee systems to enhance income, which provides more teachers, infrastructure or extra mural activities.

Interestingly, many legal challenges emanate from this sector. Because of the pressure to enter this stream, parents mount direct challenges to governing bodies, and appeal often compelling cases to the Department of Education. Several of these have recently filtered up to the Constitutional Court.

One is the case brought against Rivonia High school by the Provincial Department of Education, which refused to admit a pupil as it claimed to be full. The Department forced the school to accept the student. As Equal Education states, “the Court’s decision on the contentious issue of learner capacity will have far-ranging consequences for all South African children in a variety of contexts.”

Equal education has also intervened where a governing body refused to re-admit a student, after she had left to have a baby. The importance of this and the Rivonia case hinge on similar issues, namely which institution holds legal sway, the governing body or the Department, and how are disputes resolved? How do we deal with residual racism and exclusion?

Finally there is the rarefied air of the most elite sector of all, that of private schools. These schools are run as independent financial entities. They are autonomous and responsible for their own management structures. While model C schools charge a premium, from R500 per term, to over R2500 per month, private schools start from around R1500 per month – if subsidised by outside organisations like Churches – rising to well over R10 000 per month for top private schools like Bishops.

Private schools, just as elsewhere, cater to the patrician class, the children of wealthy business and political leaders. It was telling how our political leadership stonewalled an innocuous query asking where their children attend school. Most retreated behind the veil of privacy to avoid response. Patrick Craven, COSATU spokesperson, echoed the thoughts of many when he said, “The only conclusion I can make is that their kids are in private schools.” The head of SADTU said that those who served the public should use public services.

The question is how to narrow the gap between mud and private schools? First, we must address some basic problems. Various experts have suggested a shift away from hard copy textbooks, an ongoing problem, toward electronic readers or tablets. While the concept has merit, infrastructure problems like power remain a challenge.

Another concept is to facilitate a structured exchange rotation of teachers between all categories of schools. This would enable cross-pollination of expertise and transfer of skills. Educational systems, even one as dysfunctional as ours, should play a lead role as agents of change. The challenge is the sheer number of dysfunctional schools, in poverty plagued and often profoundly damaged communities.

Our school system also requires a structured teacher and school review and assessment system through a sensitive yet comprehensive inspection regime. Unfortunately SADTU appears to resist such thinking, a counter-productive stance. Self-reflection, assisted by external review, is surely necessary to improve personal growth and institutional performance?

The ills that beset education in South Africa require the involvement of parents, governing bodies, teachers, authorities and political leadership. We cannot simply hand over our children to a faceless system - we must all assume responsibility by holding teachers, schools and politicians within the system to account. Improving the system is not only up to “them”, it is a collective responsibility.

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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