Defend Truth


An education system that works for everyone – is it impossibly complicated? Or just hard going?


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.

We allow the apparent complexity of the education crisis to paralyse us. But the truth is that education reform is relatively straightforward – even for severely under-performing systems like ours. Our problem is that getting to a working system will be tough – it will require us to be diligent, focused, relentless and, above all, hopeful.

Complex problems involve huge and unknown variables, like sending a person to Mars. Tough problems involve hard work and resources, but the variables are well mapped out, like building a house.

Creating an effective education system is a tough problem, but we tend to overthink its complexity.

In fact, everything we need to know about building and maintaining a strong education system can be fit into 12 simple blocks, as illustrated below:

This formula, adapted from a recent review on global education system improvement, and many other readily available tools, illustrate just how much we know today about creating a blueprint for effective education improvement plans. Depending on specific political and other beliefs about education systems the focus of such a plan might shift slightly to accentuate standards, or teachers, or equability, but the areas of strategic priority generally do not.

Of course there are complexities to consider: history is a factor in all schooling systems, and some areas will need more focus and sensitivity in South Africa: the impact of poverty on learners, developing home language resources, and addressing unionisation to name a few. But, again, acknowledging that each country has unique variables is far less debilitating than the negative exceptionalism that predominates our current conversation on South African education. As profound as the current injustice to our children is; our problems are not, actually, that special.

What happens when we move from thinking we are uniquely terrible to asking whether we haven’t just been following unproductive strategies? Who hasn’t heard someone comment “we’ve spent so much on education and seen so little improvement!” as a classic dog-whistle for “it’s clearly too complicated to fix”. Hold up increased spending against the matrix above. Does it, by itself, fix any of these quality variables? Increased spending is not a primary driver to improving an education system – alone it cannot fix anything.

Another common example is how we talk about SADTU. Mmusi Mainane in his response to SONA 2018, recently referred to the union as “toxic and militant” and summarised Minister Motshekga’s Ministerial Task Team as finding that there has been”‘State Capture by SADTU”. His impassioned urgency around addressing the matter is highly laudable. But, many of the challenges in dealing with SADTU are a perfect example of a tough challenge, not a complex challenge. This is possibly best evidenced by the crisp summary of the report itself, which suggests: “If Teacher Unions are to play a genuine role in enhancing teaching and learning, they will need to reposition themselves in order to focus on the task of becoming professional/occupational unions, rather than an industrial union with an adversarial relationship with its employer.” In one sentence, the report summarises an extremely clear example of what has to be done. It will be a long, and difficult problem but surely we can envisage multiple solutions to this challenge – looking at case studies in similar contexts or consulting union experts – as opposed to the helplessness of viewing SADTU and an unknowable and unconquerable monster.

In my previous column, I used an analogy to our response to HIV/Aids. I would like to use it again. Now we think that it’s totally obvious that HIV-positive people should receive a life-saving drug provided by the state. But, we forget that this wasn’t how it was in the beginning. Government denialsm questioned whether we knew what an effective treatment regime was: combination vs AZT, dosage, frequency, cost. Our own health minister believed a significant barrier to treatment would be that patients would not be able to keep time to take medications, and even if they did they would not stay on them. Even when pressure mounted to roll out Nevirapine, months were wasted on unnecessary pilots at specific hospitals to gather more evidence.

And even in civil society there was scepticism: would mass-ARV roll-out be able to work in groups of largely poor citizens? It had never been tried before. Would treatment be effective without access to good diet, or regular clinic visits? Is mass roll-out even possible with the prohibitive costs of certain drugs?

The great strategic power of TAC at the time was to be focused on what available research could tell us about effective treatment – what could be done, what did we know and not to become bogged down by the scale of the epidemic or every single logistical issue – what can’t be done, what we do not know. Its message boiled down to: there’s treatment, people deserve access to it.

And this brings me to what I believe is a significant stumbling block in our education discourse at present: a lack of hope. We are not hopeful that we can change because we, largely, do not believe we can fix this problem – that it is too much, too complicated and too overwhelming. And yet we have all the available tools and resources to significantly improve outcomes on nearly every level.

It is not only rational to believe this crisis is highly fixable: it is necessary to have hope that it is fixable. It is only once we have hope that we will have the courage, energy and resilience to start to structure the kinds of campaigns that will succeed in the long term. And this work will not be easy: we need to completely restructure our relationship with teachers, we need to really grapple with the impact of poverty on children, we need a massive restructuring to make a less unequal school system and we need to push politicians to care beyond time-horizons that they are generally inclined to care about.

But all of this is work worth doing because the result will be a functioning education system. Not might be. It will be.

See how much more possible it feels when the outcome seems certain? DM


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