Assist poor pupils

On Tuesday I had the opportunity of attending a panel discussion on the role of the South African Communist Party in uniting the leftwing forces to build powerful fronts with social democratic and labour forces.

On Tuesday I had the opportunity of attending a panel discussion on the role of the South African Communist Party in uniting the leftwing forces to build powerful fronts with social democratic and labour forces.

The event was organised by the recently established Ikwezi Institute for Research and Development.

It was during these discussions that recently elected SACP national chairman Gwede Mantashe alluded to the question of the no-fee schools.

Mantashe mentioned the issue as part of his input about the kind of programmes the government had embarked upon in its quest to improve the lives of the "still- marginalised South African majority".

No-fee schools, Mantashe argued, were a noble initiative with noble intentions. But he warned that the initiative faced major obstacles that could perpetuate the vicious circle of underdevelopment within poor communities.

Mantashe's argument is that because these schools were in poor communities, they did not have adequate resources.

Most of these schools used whatever little funds they received in the form of school fees to acquire basic resources. Without the fees, the government must increase its subsidies for these schools. Failure to do so can only lead to the school providing low-quality education.

The situation is further compounded by the socio-economic conditions from which the majority of these pupils come.

They live in crowded shacks with no electricity or running water. Their parents are illiterate and can hardly assist them with their homework.

Essentially, these pupils grow up with an inadequate primary education foundation. It is this lack of a quality foundation that comes back to haunt them later in their academic lives.

If they manage to survive this treacherous academic minefield and make it to tertiary level, they are the ones who make up the bulk of black undergraduates who register for degrees in humanities.

The reasons they flood the humanities are varied. One of them is that they do not need the strong mathematics and science foundation to take on science or business degrees.

There is also the perception (whether scientific or not) that social science degrees are easy to obtain.

The fact that most humanities degrees can be completed in three years is another factor to be considered. For poor students who do not have bursaries, it means one can go to varsity for three years, get a degree then go to work.

Out of desperation students register for combinations of subjects that position them nowhere in the labour market.

This then becomes the vicious cycle whereby the majority of humanities graduates are black.

The graduates in engineering, physics or accounting are mostly white, with a sprinkling of Indians.

Media reports have revealed that there is a move by the education ministry to try to curb the number of students who can enrol in humanities.

This is once more a noble intervention, but it still has serious ramifications.

One of the impediments is the reality that the funding of poor students at universities is not sufficient.

This means that while trying to redress the situation of skills imbalances, the move could still see students from poor families being excluded.

One of the long-term interventions is for the government to put more resources into schools in poor communities. This would go a long way in addressing the question of quality education at foundation level.

Research has shown that children with a poor foundation in education struggle to cope in their later academic life.

There is of course something communities can do to help children from poor communities.

For example, unemployed graduates can establish projects where they go into these communities and assist children who do not get support from their families with their homework.

This will be in line with the spirit of volunteerism which must be part of our national consciousness.

In the 1980s, members of the Azanian Student Movement used to run student-support programmes in the townships - where they gave free (mainly history lessons) to the youth. Although this was part of political education, they also assisted with other subjects such as English and maths.

Such initiatives can still be replicated throughout the country so that we build a nation that can meet the new challenges of the technologically advanced global village.