South Africa

South Africa

2013 in education: Another year, another fight

The matric pass rates have improved again; a rare moment we celebrate South African youth. Stories of inspiration and opportunity abound. But soon enough, the angles of crisis in the education system will emerge. GREG NICOLSON enjoys the moment, before discussing some of the issues to watch in 2013.

January is a time to celebrate our students. The matric results are out and the Department of Basic Education looks set to reach its target of a 75% pass rate by 2014. The class of 2011 hit 70.2% with 24.3% of students scoring marks good enough to get into university. In 2012, 73.9% of students collected a national senior certificate with 24.3% cutting the mustard for a life of debauchery at varsity. Let’s forget for a moment the quotes dismissing statistics (a personal favourite is from the American broadcaster Vin Scully: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post – for support, not illumination”). It’s January, after all.
Better we focus on the inspiring stories of sacrifice and dedication. Mmadikgetho Komane regularly worked 17-hour days in preparation for her exams. The Glen Cowie Secondary School student worked on a strict schedule but was careful to get enough sleep and watch her diet, the Sowetan reported. She studied through the holidays, sacrificing time with family and friends before becoming the country’s top matriculant for 2012.

Komane and her 2012 classmates reminded us that parts of the education system still work (especially in prisons, where they achieved a surprisingly high average). January reminds us that South Africa’s youth are not fully bound by their parents’ mistakes and hardships. They can achieve. They can both acknowledge the burdens they’ve inherited and live outside their limits.

The encouraging stories aren’t limited to student efforts. After a series of court battles last year, Section27 has complimented the Department of Basic Education for “its substantial delivery of textbooks and workbooks to Limpopo schools”. It seems Minister Angie Motshekga’s team has learned its lesson from 2012 when it caused the education scandal of the year by repeatedly failing to deliver textbooks to Limpopo students.

But, alas, January only lasts 31 days (25, if we subtract the time many of us spent on holiday). Unless there is a discursive earthquake in the media and the public’s approach to education, the remainder of 2013 will feature a return to the points of crisis in an education system that sends many students into the realm of further study or work without the capabilities to cope.

The 2013 matric results already illustrate a crisis. It has been reported that the students were the first “born free” generation to graduate from high school. But with only half of the students who started Grade 1 in 2001 having made it to matric, it seems “born frees” were also born with a 50% chance of receiving a high school education.

As the year goes on, there will be a number of high-profile issues challenging the Department of Basic Education and provincial education departments to fulfill their responsibilities and tighten policies.

Section27’s Nikki Stein listed a number of issues to watch out for. Firstly, she said the organisation would continue to monitor the delivery of textbooks and workbooks in Limpopo. Delivery has improved, but is not yet complete.

The next issue to watch out for is the department’s draft norms and standards for public school infrastructure. The department reached an out of court settlement with Equal Education, requiring it to set minimum standards in schools for classrooms, electricity, water, sanitation, library facilities, laboratories, and sport facilities and electronic connectivity. The Department of Basic Education’s draft guidelines mention these issues but do little to commit to clear and firm goals. “It’s really not very good,” said Stein, simply.

One issue relating to minimum norms and standards that will stand out this year is sanitation in schools. Section27 has exposed the horrid state of toilets in many schools and will prioritise the issue in 2013. At Daily Maverick’s 2012 Gathering 2.0, Section27 executive director Mark Heywood displayed pictures of toilets in Limpopo schools: “full of shit, unemptied, toilet paper, no proper seats, sometimes just a hole cut into the ground… If you go and look for yourself, you’ll find that this is the norm in schools.” The Department of Basic Education is expected to deliver a plan to address the situation at the end of January.

Another looming battle is the Rivonia Primary School case featuring the Gauteng department of education against the school’s governing body. In the Supreme Court of appeals, the school governing body (SGB) won the right ultimately to determine who is admitted to the school and what the class sizes are. In its application for leave to appeal, the provincial department argued that allowing the SGB to be the final decision maker on the matter would entrench racial discrimination because they can effectively say who comes in and who does not.

In a similar matter, the Constitutional Court will also hear the case between the Free State Department of Education and Welkom High School and its SGB. The department will argue that the SGB has policies that discriminate against pregnant students by forcing them to leave school and be re-admitted the year after they give birth. Section27’s Stein said that this would have huge implications on the ability of pregnant students to stay in school until they matriculate and obtain an education. If pregnant students are forced out of schools, they may never come back the next year.

In 2012, the country’s education crisis was symbolised by the Limpopo textbook scandal. In 2013, it might be discrimination against pregnant students or disgusting toilets in schools. We’re likely to also see continued cases of sexual violence in schools and the ongoing impact of poor quality teachers.
Until next January, we’re unlikely to hear many more success stories. But one can only hope that the improved matric pass rate reflects the reality and that the scandals to come are opportunities, like the Limpopo textbook saga, to address the problems, keep more students in school, and prepare them for their next stage in life. DM

Photo by Reuters.