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Whose education is it anyway?


Mark Heywood is a social justice activist and former Editor of Maverick Citizen, a section of Daily Maverick. He is the former Executive Director of SECTION27 and has been a human rights activist most of his life.

The United Nations General Comment on the Right to Education describes a quality education as “not just practical.” It says that “a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence.” Yet our education system leaves millions of people imprisoned and unequal. So why are parents and learners not in revolt? Why aren’t there a thousand court cases instead of a few? Why have people slumped into a resigned acceptance of something that is not just a violation of the present but also a spoliation of the future?

This week another court case regarding the failure to deliver textbooks to thousands of learners in Limpopo has come and gone. Once more the Department of Basic Education (DBE) admitted its inability to fulfil its Constitutional duties. But one of the saddest lessons learnt from the Limpopo textboos crisis is that in very fundamental ways, important parts of the public education system are broken. 

In late May 2012 the Limpopo Education Department (LDE) was ordered to deliver textbooks, and had to do so under a critical and distrusting public gaze. It couldn’t. Its failure revealed cracks that have been quietly widening for years. For example, during Mary Metcalfe’s investigation into textbook delivery in July 2012, some schools reported that they had not had a proper supply of books for five years. And indeed the DBE, in its court papers, has admitted that it doesn’t know how many schools there are in the Limpopo. Or how many learners.

How can this be in a country where our supreme law says every child – not some children, or most children – has a cast-iron right to a basic education? 

In thinking about the answer to this question, one contradiction is clear. South Africa is not a country bereft of capability. You only need to consider what was involved in building the Gautrain: what manual labour, what imagination, what planning, what attention to detail, what oversight! Or how many single conscious actions (tens of billions probably) it took to build our architecturally magnificent world cup stadiums (put aside the fact for a minute that they may be largely socially redundant). Again, what effort! What imagination!

So why can’t we bring the same creative discipline to the advantage of millions of learners? By now our education system should be growing the next generation of architects, engineers and skilled labourers. Young people should be passing successfully through the education system because it works – not because they have succeeded against the odds. In manifold ways we have shown what we are capable as a national unit. But we are selective about what we turn our capabilities to. 

These are not new debates. In 2008/9 a process to review our education system was facilitated by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and, ironically, the ANC. It drew up a ten-point plan for educational renewal. This year, the National Development Plan has sanctioned a similar set of proposals. But these proposals lie dormant. 

What is the problem? 

Last week President Zuma was appointed as a ‘state champion’ in the UN’s ‘Education First’ initiative. Zuma accepted his appointment unselfcritically. In fact, when the appointment was criticised by the Democratic Alliance, the Presidency, aka Mac Maharaj, responded by setting out this government’s glowing track record on education. The Presidency’s statement was mildly self-deprecating about what remains to be done. However, it was completely lacking in anger and outrage at the conditions to which learners and teachers remain chained. It was a graphic example of the different ways in which education activists and government spinsters see the world.

To Mr Maharaj, the Limpopo parent should say: “There is no doubting the investment, or the increased numbers of children who have access to education. But what do you say of its quality?

“What type of investor is she who builds a house, and ensures that it meets all the requirements when looked at from the outside, but neglects the vital fittings, thus rendering the house unusable?”

In this accidental metaphor may be the rub that makes the calamity of our education system. Unfortunately our government is building schools with the same lack of concern for quality and outcome with which it has built millions of RDP houses. This makes our education crisis (for it is a crisis) just a symptom of a more widespread malaise. The cancer is not localised to education. It spreads because government and party political officials who are secure in their own homes, their children’s education, their jobs, their big cars, their own political connectedness – don’t really feel a damn about the insecure. 

Denying that there is a crisis helps nobody. But that is what is happening. It’s hard to believe that South Africa would live through two bouts of politically inspired denialism in two decades. Or that a second president would sponsor a variant of the denialism that was the undoing of his predecessor. If this allegation is true, the only consolation may be that in the same manner that Zuma turned his back on Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, a future president will turn his back on Zuma’s education denialism. Hopefully the next leader of the ANC will do all he can to make overcoming the education crisis a mark of the next government.

But given that there’s no certainty in who will replace who in the ANC, or if anybody will replace anybody at all, what would a plain decent leader do now? More importantly, what should we be doing? 

Here are some humble suggestions. They are not directed only at the government, also but at the real stakeholders in education: parents, learners, employers.

First of all, the quest to achieve quality basic education should be declared a prestige national project, something towards which every person involved – whether a learner, teacher or administrator – feels they have a contribution to make. This project needs to be linked to our national aspirations for a more competitive, equal and dignified country. 

But a Marshall Plan for education (we could call it a Mandela Plan) must start with the ‘small’ tangible steps that can be taken, counted, measured and which would begin to inject a new mood into the education system. 

To start with, an environment for teaching and learning has to be established as a matter of urgency. As demanded by Equal Education, the DBE must be made to publish a set of basic norms and standards for schools. It should also be called upon to set up an independent office of educational standards compliance.

Below are some examples of steps that are urgently needed and eminently doable:

  • We need a plan and a commitment to have sufficient clean toilets and water in all schools within a year. There can be no dignity in learning if children’s basic needs and bodily functions cannot be catered for. School should not be associated with flies, smells and an invasion of privacy.
  • There should be a plan to fix the security fences around schools so as to protect property and the people within the boundaries of school. 
  • Sexual violence against girl learners appears to be endemic to the schooling system. The Department of Justice, the police and the SABC should be instructed to devise a campaign to root out this evil. A strong message must be sent by teacher unions and SGBs that there will be zero tolerance of sexual abuse in schools.
  • Oversight of schools by parents and teachers needs to be improved. Funds and training are needed to strengthen the oversight and managerial capability of School Governing Bodies (SGBs). 

Finally, if officials in government think such a plan is unrealistic, they should vacate their posts. Government is about rising to the challenging standards set by the Constitution, not about making excuses. In court this week, the DBE’s lawyers made multiple excuses about why they could not get textbooks to schools. The question is whether they would have accepted their own excuses if it was their children that were being starved. So why should we? And why should the Court? Which brings us back to where we started. 

Whose education is it anyway? DM


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