Every year this time the media feature a well-trodden set of stories: complaints about overcrowding in cities, a star-pupil going to study overseas, a nice new school here or a resource scandal there. Government officials will make comments about the importance of education and how we need to “do better”. We will dial the opinions up for about three weeks and talk about how important education is and then move on to other matters. But this has to change: if we have any hope of surviving as a nation what we need now is clarity on the education crisis – and consistent and focused moral outrage.
Our state is permitting the literal devastation of our national future by knowingly overseeing a dysfunctional education system with a degree of criminal negligence. That is the story that deserves to be the front page of every newspaper and on every radio station at this time.
With the year we have just gone through as a nation, it may seem difficult to keep track of what the most important news has been. But compare any piece of information, concern or opinion you hold about South Africa – Cyril Ramaphosa vs NDZ, Jacob Zuma’s impeachment dramas, parastatal graft, free tertiary education, matric results – with the fact that eight out of 10 Grade 4 children in South Africa cannot read, according to the PIRLS 2016 study released in December. Over a 20-year timeline, what story will matter more for who we become as a nation? Or, asked differently: is there a successful country on earth with a largely illiterate population?
If you think that literacy levels can somehow improve later, or that catch-up is possible, or that the data is unreliable: it is not. The data is credible; the measure is set for this age because that is the developmental gatepost for literacy development, after which you are unlikely to learn to read for meaning. It is difficult to truly grasp the significance, but try to imagine what work is available to someone who cannot read, what information they are able to access to make political decisions, how they are supposed to use technology or how they will raise their children. And then scale that up to 78% of the population.
We need public discourse that’s proportionate to the shame, shock and rage that, the nation that people fought and died now squanders the lives of their children. That will place public statements and claims of responsibility in the appropriate context and start a constructive national dialogue that cannot have an expiry date a few weeks after school starts.
For instance, Minister Angie Motshekga says in her speech releasing the matric results that: “We are increasingly prioritising interventions and policies that target an improved quality of learning and teaching, and implementing accountability systems to ensure that quality outcomes are achieved. More specifically, we have prioritised early Grade literacy. This is necessary to respond pointedly to the concerns raised in the PIRLS 2016…”
If we maintained sight of the crisis we are in, would it really be possible for the Education Minister to label the PIRLS results as “concerns raised” and offer “an increase in priorities” as the solution without widespread condemnation following? Remember Aids-denialism and our response to that? Granted Minister Motshekga isn’t denying a literacy crisis – but is it really better to know and respond like this?
So long as we accept these facile responses from leadership we will be held hostage to this crisis. There exist many solutions to improving outcomes more broadly and to the literacy crisis specifically. Particularly frustrating is that South Africa, with the support of the Minister Motshekga, has completed the Early Grade Reading Study, which education researcher Nic Spaull has called “a new ‘gold-standard’ study (which) finds improvement of 40% of a year of learning in reading for disadvantaged children in South Africa”. If our urgency was proportional to the problem then the solutions are available that could be scaled up immediately. Remember Nevirapine? Every nation on earth had at some point to switch over from an illiterate to a literate society: it is the willingness to address the needs of the crisis to an appropriate degree where we fail. Our best tool as the general public is to not loose sight of the fact that we are again facing an avoidable calamity because the government is not taking full responsibility.
We need to get back to the power encapsulated in the rage of 1976, the lucidity we had as civil society during the worst years of the HIV/Aids crisis in the early 2000s, the relentlessness of the ANC and other liberation parties during the long decades of apartheid. Those battles were won because they had a clear and consistent message: we will not accept this, we have a bigger dream and we are owed more than this.
The situation in education is desperately grim. But if there is one thing that we can do as a nation, it is to mobilise, organise, express outrage and demand better. That is exactly what we need now. DM
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Melanie Smuts is a lapsed human rights lawyer and the founder and CEO of Streetlight Schools - a non-profit that focuses on starting primary schools in under-resourced areas using an innovative model that incorporates global best education practice into a local context.
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