Millions of students are failed by the public education system every year, yet the response has been piecemeal and insufficient. This is because there are too many leaks and far too few fingers. Perhaps if we admit the dam is on the verge of collapse, we could come up with a real plan to fix it. By OSIAME MOLEFE
If you need any more evidence that South Africa’s basic education system, and perhaps government, is in the throes of a full-on crisis, look no further than a few of the cases the basic education department has been hauled before the courts to answer. One case relates to the lack of adequate schools infrastructure, another to the late delivery of textbooks to Limpopo schools and a third to an apparent administrative bungle relating to how the department deals with textbook publishers.
The most recent case, brought by the Legal Resources Centre on behalf of the Centre for Child Law and four school governing bodies, seeks to compel education minister Angie Motshekga and her provincial counterpart to fill the numerous vacant teacher posts in the Eastern Cape. Motshekga recently described the state of basic education in the province as a “horror story”. One of those horrors is the unacceptably high student-to-teacher ratio.
Equal Education, which brought the case on school infrastructure, said it did not make the decision to turn to the courts lightly. For years the NGO lobbied for libraries and the eradication of mud schools before opening up the campaign to a broader appeal to improve infrastructure in public schools. When the lobbying failed to yield results, despite the obvious and urgent need, the organisation brought the lawsuit to compel Motshekga to set minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure.
With the norms and standards in place, Motshekga, the departments of finance and public works, and the provincial education MECs would have a base from which to co-ordinate building schools, libraries, sanitation facilities and other infrastructure at a standard that will allow students to flourish.
In addition to these cases, several others relating to different departments exist: the Freedom Under Law on the Mdluli saga, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance on e-tolling, and the SA Litigation Centre and the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum on the country’s failure to fulfil its international obligations under the Rome Statute.
Taken with these other cases, those against the education department form part of a broader trend that indicates a loss of faith in the government, and not by anti-majoritarians, as some in the governing party might claim. These campaigns are well supported and seek to prod government into doing more than what the ANC promised in its election mandate.
The cases against the education department are also significant once you consider that they are not isolated to the specific schools involved. They are indicative of system-wide problems that manifest in the woeful exam performance of public school students.
In the recently released mid-term review of the performance of President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet, the monitoring and evaluation department isolated the problems in basic education by looking at what determines how children in the system perform.
Poverty remains the primary determinant of pupil performance, it said. That, compounded with poor subject-matter knowledge by teachers, poor operational management in provinces, districts and schools, inadequate schools infrastructure, and the late delivery of learning materials means that the system fails many millions of students every year.
This litany of problems points to there being a response greater than calling for the head of whoever is in charge, which is what the normal South Africa reflex dictates.
Sure, Motshekga (or the ANC government) can be shown the door, but the fundamental problems ailing the system would remain. The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union can be made, by some miracle, to butt out of managing teacher performance, but the problems in teacher training and accreditation would remain. Every last administrator can be fired, but still there will be students learning under trees or in mud schools. We can have state-of-the-art schools, yet whatever it is that prevents South African teachers from achieving the same results as their international counterparts with equivalent knowledge levels will still be there.
Nothing short of a comprehensive response that deals with all the facets of the problem will right this situation. And until an admission that basic education is in crisis is forthcoming, an intervention here and a court case there might not lead to such a response.
In the meantime, there are children in the public school system, about 12 million of them according to the last schools survey. Every year, some fall out because the system has failed them and of the few that make it to grade 12, the majority graduate without the knowledge and skills needed to survive, let alone succeed, in the workplace or in higher education.
With their aspirations stunted in this manner, so too has the rest of the populace been doomed to mediocrity, at best. At worst, with the huge numbers we’re talking about here, civil unrest lies ahead. DM
Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.