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Robotics good news, but learners must first be able to read

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is the Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Education Faculty at the University of Stellenbosch.

The State of the Nation address by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 13 February shows signs of a new vision for education in South Africa. But promises must be followed by actions to address the growing unemployment among the youth.

Last week it was 30 years since Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990 as a free man. I was there. For us it was the key to a new dispensation in which everyone would be free.

Thus, it was suitable that president Cyril Ramaphosa started the State of the Nation address with that historic day because we gazed in wonder at Mandela as the symbol of hope which the new South Africa would bring. A new era of democracy and freedom had arrived.

More than 30 years later, Ramaphosa had to assure the nation that Project Freedom is still on track when he said we should not allow fear to stand in our way. He also had to admit that times are difficult.

Those of us who were there can testify to the huge crowd that gathered on the Grand Parade in Cape Town that day. Unlike last week, everyone was excited. But there was order.

Fast-forward to 13 February 2020: A gloomy atmosphere prevailed in Parliament. South Africa’s morale is low. When thousands of South Africans, including myself, gathered in front of the television to listen to the State of the Nation Address, it was in the hope that we would hear something which we could hold on to.

But then the EFF decided to make a mockery of the democracy for which Mandela and many others had struggled. Like typical school bullies they continuously disrupted the class while the rest just wanted to exercise their constitutional right to listen. And when they were barred from the class, they complained to their parents that no one wanted to listen to them!

But what if the teachers had not turned up?

The positive, however, is that education – the one field in which the inequality of South African society is the clearest – is slowly but surely moving in the right direction.

The President reminded us that more youths in our country today than ever before have access to education. The 2.4 million children in preschool educational institutions are the proof of this. In 2019, 81% of matriculants passed – this is the most in our democratic history. We should celebrate these achievements.

On certain problems the President however remained silent. There are still 2,703 schools where learners use pit toilets. Despite R3.4-billion that the Treasury has made available for the upgrading, I see no clear plan to restore the dignity of these learners.

There is growing concern about the absence of teachers. I hoped that the President would highlight this problem, given the fact that education is one of the greatest single items in our Budget. 

Someone must accept responsibility if learners consider the absence of teachers to be one of the greatest obstacles to their success.

Poverty is still visible in many schools, especially in rural areas, where learners must queue for food. In parts of the Karoo, learners, some of them as young as seven, must walk several kilometres along the dangerous N1.

Classroom under a tree

At the Ibhongo Lethu Primary School in Upington in the Northern Cape, 900 learners had to start the new school year without toilets. The provincial department of education had rented four temporary toilets for 900 learners but the rent was not paid.

In a school in Limpopo, learners were greeted by a school where the roof had been destroyed by fire before the Christmas holiday. For them, it was back to the “classroom” under a tree. And in the Eastern Cape, most learners of the Mcheni Primary School returned to a mud-brick building because the department of education had not kept its promise to build new classrooms by the time the schools reopened.

The violence which has been afflicting South African schools for some time now, including gang violence on the Cape Flats, has deprived thousands of children of their basic right to education. The President has admitted that basic safety is lacking in some residential areas, and that police visibility, effective training and better resources are a priority for police stations. What is also lacking is a minister with the political will and expertise to execute the plans.

Matric pass rate not the full story

When the current government came into power, it promised to transform the education system into a functional system. A social contract was entered into with the youth. While they were to focus on their studies, the government would grow the economy and provide work. 

What do we say to the youths who fulfilled their part of the contract?

What we should tell these young people – because guidance counselling teachers have been done away with – is that learners must be employable at the end of their school career. As the President rightly remarked, we must adapt by changing the way in which young people are prepared for future careers. This entails shorter courses in specific skills in the fast-growing sectors.

Despite the good pass rate of matriculants, this does not tell the full story. Only 60% of learners who were in Grade 1 in 2007 have progressed to matric. The high dropout rate means that young people are not qualified for any job. This contributes to the growing unemployment figures among the youth.

Two-thirds of the 1.2 million youths who should enter the job market each year do not have work and are not currently being trained.

We are sitting with a crisis which requires urgent intervention, and the President knows this.

Vocational colleges

We require sufficient vocational training colleges to prepare our youth for work. Thus, it was encouraging to hear that nine new vocational campuses are under construction – one for each province (or so I thought). Currently, four are planned in the Eastern Cape and five in KwaZulu-Natal. I realise that there are big backlogs in these provinces, but the same goes for Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. And after its excellent achievement in the matric exam, the Free State also deserves this.

It is also gratifying to hear that the tablets promised by the President in 2019 are nearly ready to be distributed to schools. I have also noted that coding and robotics will be introduced in the foundation phase.

Like last year, I want to caution that the cart should not be put before the horse. In the international Timms tests, 78% of our Grade 4 learners could not read with comprehension. Our first priority is that all learners in the foundation phase must read and write with comprehension and be able to do basic arithmetic. As the name indicates, the foundation must be laid in this phase so that learners in the intermediate phase can make the leap to coding and robotics. Hence it is good news that reading programmes are picking up momentum.

Another university?

The announcement about a new university for science and innovation is not unexpected and probably part of the government’s bigger plan to prepare for the fourth industrial revolution. The introduction of coding and robotics as well as technical maths and technical science is part of this plan.

I am surprised that another university is planned in Gauteng – within taxi ride distance of Wits, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Pretoria and Unisa. Many students here are following courses which do not give them admission to the job market.

A more sustainable plan would be to reposition one university for maths and science. What is not part of the plan is the decrease in matriculants taking maths. This should concern the President.

In closing: The basic aim of any education system is to equip its youth with suitable skills. This is the best contribution to inclusive economic growth. To quote Ramaphosa: the investment made now in the development of the youth will benefit the economy in the long term.

It is our duty to make this country work for its youth so that one day they can work for the country. All things considered, the State of the Nation Address gives hope to educationists. Let us now follow up with action. DM

Professor Le Cordeur is head of the department of curriculum studies in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University.

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