South Africa

Education for all, all for education

By J Brooks Spector 22 November 2012

Despite SA’s education crisis, there are pockets of excellence from which hope can be drawn. As South Africa draws close to the end of the academic year, J BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the inner truth of the country’s education crisis. 

Over a lifetime, the author attended half a dozen schools, watched as his children attended more than a half dozen others in five different nations and seven cities, and attentively followed his wife’s teaching career in those countries – at yet another half dozen or so other schools – from the primary level to high school to the tertiary level; at rich and poor schools both.

These have ranged from Apartheid-era township schools in South Africa to the most larney private schools imaginable; from religiously based institutions to ones where every faith practiced throughout the globe was honoured with school celebrations. Among these schools, there were those coping with severe resource problems and ones where no high tech innovation – almost regardless of cost – was beyond the realm of the possible.

While all this experience doesn’t necessarily make the writer an international educational policy expert, nevertheless, it has given him some insights into what works – and what doesn’t – in education. And that, in turn, has allowed the writer to offer some opinions about the problems facing South African education now. Beyond all these experiences, when the writer first worked in South Africa back in the 1970s, he also had opportunities to become thoroughly acquainted with the headmasters and teachers from many different schools in black neighbourhoods and townships throughout Johannesburg and beyond – just as the Soweto uprising began – so there is also a little bit of experience with what “educational challenges” means for the development of students in the midst of an authoritarian regime. 

With all of that experience running in background as it were, the other day, the writer visited a Johannesburg primary school to see what makes it tick – its challenges and successes as well as the ambitions of its staff. Aloe Hill Primary* is a really good school, fine facilities, in a “nice” neighbourhood rather than an overly ostentatious, luxurious or showy one. Waiting until the time with the school’s head is available for our planned conversation, the writer can see more than 100 of the bigger students (this writer genuinely despises that neologism, “learner”) in the school hall, writing some of their exams. Some of the students fidget, some write furiously, some chew on their pencils thoughtfully or absent-mindedly; still others look a bit shell-shocked. A very familiar sight, this.

While still waiting, an intimate little drama unfolds in the school’s reception area. One small boy, obviously in the throes of some serious test anxiety, is struggling to hold back his tears of embarrassment, and he is being comforted by one of the school’s younger teachers. The boy’s mother – or perhaps it is his grandmother – is seated nearby, watching. The teacher gently tells the student to go home, get some sleep, and eat a really good breakfast tomorrow morning of everything your mother gives you to make you strong. Then come back to school tomorrow and let’s try again, okay? She gives him a really big, nurturing, totally unselfconscious squeeze of a hug. The boy reaches down deep inside himself and squeezes out a wan smile.

But her hug wasn’t one of those cursory things the glitterati give each another on television. Instead, it seems the genuine article. But, reversing the usual South African tableaux – the teacher is a young white woman, the boy in question is an African child; a straw in the proverbial wind for the circumstances of Aloe Hill?

The school head, let’s call her Joanne Birchton, explains Aloe Hill now has some 700 pupils from the entry level through grade seven, but there are another 200 or so in the pre-primary school attached to, but administratively separate from, her primary school. All in all, there are around 1,000 people, young and adult, on the campus every day. The school draws many of its students from its catchment district in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs of course, but it has an open applications process – and that means a waiting list to enter every grade, all the time – and many others vie for admission of their children.

A couple of decades ago, virtually all of the school’s student population was white. Aloe Hill is a “former Model C” school, a term of art or political subterfuge that dates from the beginning of the transition from Apartheid era to the current one. The parents, teachers and administrative staffers of formerly all-white schools had the option to moving away from being all white, entirely government supported schools – but it would be at the cost of losing much of the government funding that initially supported the school.

A version of the formula has effectively been rolled forward into the present, and few further wrinkles have been added to the mix. The national educational funding formula – explicitly designed to even out generations of deeply inequitable education – now divides schools and their communities into five quintiles. Aloe Hill’s student population is now much less than 50% white, but the funding formula now works on the basis of the economic circumstances of its surrounding community.

The higher up that scale a school and its surrounds are, the lower the per student payment towards operations become. Aloe Hill is in the uppermost quintile – and the end result is that out of almost 50 teachers, the government’s funding pays only for 22 of them. The rest of the teaching complement must be paid with funds raised by its “school governing body” – a cross between a non-profit organisation’s board of directors and a more usual parent teacher association. At Aloe Hill, the teachers hired this way get the same pay as government-funded teachers – although government medical plans and retirement benefits are generally not available to them.

Birchton explains she’s been blessed with  committed, dedicated teaching staff who have blended together into a cohesive professional community. (Parenthetically, the school’s teachers are not Sadtu members.) Their dedication is extraordinary, she says. They routinely stay after regular teaching hours, creating curriculum support and enrichment materials. They also give their time to support a whole range of extra-curricular efforts – within Aloe Hill and in a wide range of competitions with other schools.

One problem is – and maybe it is a more general challenge of South African education – that despite the esprit de corps at Aloe Hill among its teachers, the city’s more expensive private schools (Aloe Hill charges about R15,000 a year for tuition. Being allowed to charge for real tuition is another legacy of being a former Model C school) regularly hire away Aloe Hill’s more experienced, most competent teachers. It lures them with offers of better pay, more benefits, tuition rebates at the hiring school, and presumably greater prestige within the country’s educational sector.

As a result, Birchton says she’s often considered creating an actual teachers’ training academy as a way of enhancing the school’s income – and making a real contribution to the country’s broader educational quality.  What stands in the way, of course, is getting all the bureaucratic obstacles dealt with properly so that a programme like that can become a recognised, regular project for educational training. She’s already got a kind of modest pilot version on the move with Unisa’s education majors. But a larger venture could be a way of working with many veteran teachers who remain less than fully qualified or skilled (and there are still many such instructors in South Africa) and thereby improving the country’s pool of skills in actual teaching and educational problem solving.

Part of the problem here is that some years ago the country closed down all of its teachers’ colleges – the good ones, the dreadful ones and the exceptionally good ones. A few of the well-established ones were folded into nearby universities. Teachers who graduated from these university education programmes now had BA or BSc degrees, but they had very little in the way of practical teaching experience – or a fuller understanding of fundamental teaching methodologies. Birchton sums it up by saying such graduates may well understand mathematics, but they may not know how to teach that material so that students learn it.

Birchton says that still another, further challenge for keeping up the quality of Aloe Hill School is a new initiative by government to insist the new classroom size limit be 40 students per class. So far at least, Aloe Hill has been able to keep its class numbers at around 29 or 30 children per class. In fact, over the years, that has been one of the important selling points of the school to prospective students’ parents – and it is one way it manages to attract full-cost paying families (as opposed to families below a particular threshold of income, who qualify for subsidised or reduced fees).

Moreover, the relatively small class sizes also generate considerable parent support for the school. That, in turn, rallies parents to participate in or help organise fundraising efforts that underwrite the school’s ability to hire so many school governing body-hired teachers. It’s a virtuous circle, Birchton says. But the opposite is true as well. If the school were to insist on keeping its class sizes under the new proposed level, the government could follow through by lowering payments in the school’s funding formula. That would mean the school would have to find even more funds beyond the education budget it receives from government to hire more SGB-paid teachers to keep class sizes down.

That result, in turn, would provide the government with a rationale to cut its subsidy still further – a vicious cycle and a downward spiral. Parents, Birchton says, will want to fight something like this, but then she sighs wearily and says that, ultimately, as a government employee she’ll do what she has to do. Regardless, such a response by government would move a school down the quality scale rather than up it, even if it is presumably in the interest of broader equity concerns and spreading around a limited budget more fairly.

But to some degree this argument about education budgets remains something of a puzzle. South Africa already spends around 5.3% of its GDP on education. While the precise, actual percentage depends on what is included in the calculation and how government spending and other funding is measured, this is actually a significantly better rate of resource allocation than many middle-income nations manage. It is even better than nations like Canada and the Netherlands in purely percentage spending terms (although first world nations actually have more funds available, given their higher per capita incomes).

But a key problem is how all that money ends up spent – and what the country gets for its money. Recent cross-national comparative figures show South Africa comes in way behind African nations like Ghana or Botswana, and numerous others around the world, in terms of educational output – pupil test scores based on comparative exam scores. And these measuring rods don’t address the still open question of whether the country’s educational establishment can successfully deliver textbooks or build, rebuild or renovate its existing schools successfully. Other national surveys continue show a terrifying lack of libraries, laboratories, IT connectivity – and even electricity supplies, running water and flush toilets in many of the nation’s schools.

The writer had a bit of a flashback when wandering around Aloe Hill Primary, speaking with its staff, and looking in on classes. Years before, when the writer and his family lived in Northern Japan for several years, his older daughter went to an ordinary neighbourhood yo-chi-en (kindergarten). This facility was a very typical pre-school, definitely not an elite private institution. Like Aloe Hill, the school ran on the devotion and efforts of a group of young, enthusiastic education college graduates under the guidance of a more experienced school head.

Staff members were often at that school until late into the evening, working out lesson plans for the next day in detail and preparing all the support materials needed. Moreover, as Japanese children enter their respective primary schools, the teachers they encounter are the system’s best and brightest (and they get salary enhancements to make it worth their while to tackle these lower grades). This is consistent with a broad understanding that children are best taught and acculturated when they are young and impressionable, rather than waiting until they are rebellious teenagers and when any teacher impact becomes well nigh impossible.

In contrast to so many other South African schools, of course, Aloe Hill can be said to be in a fortunate spot. It has a functioning library, there is age-appropriate science teaching equipment, it has an IT lab, there are excellent sports facilities – and, of course, it has toilets, running water and electricity. But much of the build-up of this physical plant has come about from constant, continuing fundraising efforts by the school’s students, teachers, its governing board and parents – all working together over the years, rather than being just a legacy of the old, unequal, Apartheid educational tradition. And this school gets less per pupil from the government than many, perhaps most, other less lucky schools.

But, what Aloe Hill has in abundance is the understanding of how to put everything together in a coherent, mutually supporting package for quality educational results. Recently the school hosted what amounted to an education fair where some of the city’s top private middle schools and high schools sought out the best Aloe Hill students for onward admission (and, frequently, bursaries as well). Aloe Hill is not unique, but it is definitely a model of what works.

Going forward, what a school like Aloe Hill should be receiving is positive recognition by educational authorities and the endorsement and embrace of the ways its successes might be replicable in other schools – even if money remains limited. What the country needs is an understanding that schools like this one can be models of excellence for other less well-endowed schools – and that they can become vehicles to train others.

Birchton winds up our conversation with a hope that as time goes on she will be in the fortunate position of being able to point to an ever-growing roster of successful South Africans from all backgrounds in many walks of life who can say they were products of Aloe Hill – and be proud of it – and want the same quality of education for their own children. DM

*This is not the school’s actual name. The Gauteng Department of Education has instructed school administrators to only speak with the media for attribution with prior authorisation from the GDE. This follows public debate and numerous newspaper articles over the admissions policy of Rivonia Primary School. 

Photo by Reuters.


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