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Reading begins with A-B-C - SA education strategies mus...

Defend Truth


Let’s start with the ABCs and radically reboot South Africa’s education system


Mike Russell is the retired head of Bridge House School in the Winelands of the Cape. Prior to that, he was head of Redhill in Morningside, Johannesburg. For a short period, he worked as an education consultant and adult trainer in the publishing world, and he kicked off his career as an English and French teacher at Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

The obvious starting point in terms of long-term and sustainable improvement for our country is the school system — especially in the early childhood development domain. Get that right and watch our matric throughput and pass rate improve dramatically down the line.

As a child growing up in rural Scotland in the late 1950s and early 60s, nourished on a Scottish diet of fried foods, grey meat, tatties, ice cream and sweets, I spent many painful hours in a National Health Service dentist’s chair.

I am sure Dr Kelly was a gentle family man and a fine husband and father, but in his surgery, dressed in his white mandarin-collar tunic with its twin rows of buttons, he became, in my mind, a nightmarish figure.

Add to this the belt-driven pedal-powered drills, gigantic dripping glass syringes with long shining needles, and the resultant pain inflicted on six-year-old teeth and gums, and you can count your lucky stars that instruments, techniques and materials have shifted light years since those days.

On arrival in South Africa, the dental torture continued through my teenage years as a result of that early childhood neglect. Again, seemingly endless hours were spent filling molar after premolar after canine with silver-grey mercuric amalgam. At least there was sometimes nitrous oxide to make the whole ordeal seem strangely laughable.

Of late, as a middle-aged adult, I have had less frequent and less painful dental encounters, although the thought of time in the chair for a filling or a root canal treatment still weighs heavily through the day of an appointment. But now, I fall back on the fact that, by five that afternoon, I will be on my way home and the whole thing, however painful, will be over and the tooth will be healing and stronger than it was when I got into the chair. It’s a “this-too-shall-pass” way of thinking. I guess, the stoic Russell clan motto, Che sará sará (whatever will be, will be) has, subconsciously, seen me through.

It’s this same sense of “this shall pass” that is getting me through these troubled days. We all look at the sorry state of governance and infrastructure in our beloved country: corruption, arrogance, disconnect, privilege and impunity; collapsed or collapsing enterprises like municipalities; collapsed roads; Eskom and rolling blackouts; Prasa and stripped rail infrastructure (which did not happen overnight, by the way); log jammed harbours; Denel; the Post Office; too many of our hospitals under-resourced and understaffed (just one dysfunctional health facility is one too many); compromised water and sanitation; SAA; tavern shootings; schools still with pit latrines; children dying because of stolen manhole covers; cancel culture; reaching for the race card; incessant GBV crimes… The list goes on.  

And, at best, the powers that be react late and with little more than promises of yet another task group to investigate the issue at hand.

As is so often the case in effective systems, the levers for sustainable improvement are almost always long-term and not the most obvious. I’ve found in my work experience that very often there needs to be a two-pronged approach (at least) to fixing complex things that are not working. On one level, there need to be some immediate remedies: a quick fix of some kind, or what some call “low-hanging fruit”, as well as longer-term systemic measures that don’t necessarily produce immediate results, but which are proactive as opposed to reactive.

To me, our failed and failing infrastructure is crying out for this two-pronged approach: prioritise and fix broken things immediately. And in the meantime, in the background as it were, map out how to ensure that they will operate optimally in the future, and actively begin to put that plan in motion.

To me as a teacher, the obvious starting point in terms of long-term and sustainable improvement for our country is the school system — especially in the early childhood development domain. Get that right and get it right now and watch our matric throughput and pass rate improve dramatically down the line. That’s the long-term strategic bit.

The short-term quick fixes will require boldness on the part of the authorities that we have yet to see. High on the list of short-term quick fixes has to be the provision of decent sanitation in every single one of our schools. Improved teacher training and status would also be an encouraging start. We missed a chance to reboot the curriculum during the Covid-19 hiatus. While there may have been massive developments in terms of online delivery, if we’re honest, those changes were not of our choice: they were reactions.

We talk constantly, worldwide, and well into the 21st century, about the desperate need to develop critical thinkers, collaborators, creators, entrepreneurs, problem-solvers. It is utterly impossible to do this unless we move from the current monolithic curriculum that dictates to teachers what to teach, when and how to teach it and when and how to assess what’s been taught.

If the majority of our teachers aren’t given the autonomy or the skills or the freedom to think critically themselves about what they are doing, how on earth will our schools produce critical thinkers? I sometimes wonder to myself if we genuinely want critical thinking school-leavers at the polls, but that’s a subject for another day.

Just like focusing on the drive home after the root canal treatment, I believe that this period in our country’s story must pass too. It has to. It’s therefore crucial that, as optimists, we focus with hope on what comes after these trying days.

But hope and rose-coloured glasses are not sufficient. It’s time, now, to radically revisit and reboot our education system, starting with safe schools, sanitation, a revised curriculum, and top-class teacher training. 

Add to that, some long-term proactive strategy and we can come out of this healed and stronger. DM


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