Highlighting the persistent divisions in educational opportunity at the heart of the South African schooling system, Neville Alexander outlines a new direction based on the equitable distribution of opportunities for children, a more widespread culture of learning, and adequate institutional support for teaching staff.
As usual at this time of the year, there has been a sudden spurt of analyses, discussions, and scenarios about our education system. Some of these are symptomatic of the annual matriculation exams-related national itch. This year, some of them are undoubtedly related to contests between political parties positioning themselves for next year's general election. And yet we believe that something even more important is taking place - as South Africans we are sensing more clearly the depth of our crisis in education. And we are realising that education should be placed on the national agenda as a priority item.
A BLEAK FUTURE?
Every South African citizen who knows that the future of this country ultimately depends on the health of the education system has come to realise that at this moment we have no future. This is so because of the fact that the system continues to stagnate and even to regress in crisis mode, in spite of all well-intentioned interventions by the government and other interested parties.
By way of reminding ourselves of the depth and the extent of the dysfunctionality of the system, a few examples must suffice. Behind these, there is a veritable archive of statistics and other data that demonstrate in brutal detail just how bad the situation is:
• Very many of our children - especially in the impoverished rural areas and townships - go to school hungry. They are by definition unable to learn effectively.
• The majority of our children are not learning to read and write confidently in any language. The culture of reading, which is the foundation of any modern nation, is confined to a thin layer of privileged people.
• Too many schools are unsafe, bleak, uninspiring places where violence and abuse are rife. Teachers and their students are too often traumatised, demotivated, and merely going through the motions. Schools as learning spaces, where opportunities exist for experiencing the joy of learning, exploring, experimenting and achieving, are few and far between. Where they do exist, they are to be found mainly in established suburban, former white areas.
• In most other cases, schools are no more than dumping grounds where parents hope the teachers will cope with their offspring as best they can. And, indeed, given class sizes and other anti-educational factors, many teachers are no less than miracle workers!
• 79% of our schools do not have libraries and 60% do not have laboratories.
• 60% of children are pushed out of the schooling system before they reach Grade 12.
• If you dropped out before completing Grade 12, your chances of employment are not significantly higher than someone without any schooling.
• Teachers are the most important group of professionals in any society since everything depends on their dedication and effectiveness. Yet the quality of teacher education and professional development, as well as the levels of support for most teachers, are grossly inadequate. So much so, indeed, that 55% of those in the profession would leave it if they could.
30,000 teachers in fact do leave the profession annually, while only 7,000 enter it.
CRUX OF THE PROBLEM
The long and the short of the crisis is that we have a two-tier educational system in South Africa, one for the children of the rich and another for the urban and the rural poor. Schooling is based on middle class norms - such as literate parents, homes with some books and newspapers, daily access to English, and homes with longstanding confidence in discussing schoolwork with children. The majority of our children who come from other kinds of families and homes are doomed to fail and to be frustrated.
The consequences can be seen everywhere in our streets and in our prisons. We need to address the social inequality which is at the root of this phenomenon, inter alia by creating a supportive environment and providing the inspiration, the leadership and the resources that all children need to benefit from their schooling.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
We have to call in the people and do again - and even better - what we did under apartheid. We have to make education into a people's affair. Communities, especially working-class and other poor communities, have to become directly involved in looking for immediate ways out of the crisis. Government and educationists have to engage the people in open, public, and transparent processes where the issues are canvassed in detail and social contracts between relevant arms of government, educational institutions, and the relevant communities are entered into. Schools of education at universities should place the engagement with poor communities at the top of their list of research and development priorities, and government as well as other organisations with resources should see this as worthy of public investment.
The Department of Education should institute a national commission on restoring quality education immediately after the 2009 elections. Such a commission should not consist merely of 'experts' and an army of consultants. It should, like the poverty hearings, involve all communities over a period of at least eighteen months and issue interim reports and recommendations until it can produce a final report on a well-considered and realistic programme for the radical transformation of the system as a whole.
Three issues should receive immediate attention: improving the quantity and quality of teachers in the system, especially in the primary school; improving the availability of quality learning and teaching resources for all learners and educators; and, above all, instituting a corruption-free compulsory nutritional scheme co-delivered with, and accountable to, communities so that even the poorest child is given at the very least the chance to attend school on a full stomach.
We are engaged in weaving together a network of educators and other interested people to launch an initiative to come together, across differences, to mobilise for education - sensing that our future depends on urgent and wide public participation in education. We believe that all those who are serious about salvaging our proud educational heritage and building on it for the liberating future we held up to our youth and our people in 1994 will want to be part of this non-party political network and educational movement.
We stand at the proverbial crossroads. We either take the road that goes around in a long detour only to come back to where we are now - in crisis - or we take the direct, if difficult, road to the kind of education we want for our children and other members of our society equally in need of educational development. It is only if we have the courage to do this that we can build the kind of South Africa for which we have fought so long, and for which we continue to struggle.
We believe that the choice is crystal clear.
Statement signed by: Neville Alexander, Ivor Baatjes, Nhlanganiso Dladla, Andre Keet, Nobuntu Mazeka, Nomsa Mazwai, Enver Motala, Kim Porteus, Brian Ramadiro, John Samuel, and Salim Vally.