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Re-examination of our schooling system needed

Image: 123RF

In a fortnight or so from now, the department of basic education (DBE) will release the 2019 matric results.

For some days after, the spotlight will be on education for its currency and in part because there will not be much else considering the dry news season.

The conversation will soon pause and resume when schools reopen in mid-January.

By February, hardly anyone will be talking about education, at least publicly, unless some misfortune strikes one or another school somewhere. Certainly, a crisis or some frivolous occurrence in another sector is enough to shift attention from matters at hand.

Thus, the sad truth is that South African discourse on education is characteristic of the pattern of broader national discourse – our attention span on issues that matter most is usually short-lived, hardly delineates them in depth, let alone focus attention on the solutions required.

Yet, the importance of education for national development hardly requires emphasis. As the National Development Plan (NDP) asserts: “Education, training and innovation are central to South Africa’s long-term development.”

Equally requiring no stress is the pre-eminence of the foundational phase in the learner’s academic and overall future success. It is simply too important to be left to chance. Yet, the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative reading assessment among some 50 countries across the world, found that eight out of every 10 South African children could not read proficiently.

The five yearly study, which commenced its reporting in 2001, found that 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. This means that they also lack automaticity – the ability effortlessly to recognise words in print – and prosody – rhythm, stress and intonation in oral reading.

Of the 78%, about 93% of Grade 4 learners tested for reading in Sepedi, 90% in Setswana, 89% in Tshivenda, 88% in isiXhosa, 88% in Xitsonga, 87% in isiZulu and 87% in isiNdebele, could not do so competently and with understanding. The crisis is therefore more acute with African children. Needless to add that South Africa came out last of the 50 countries surveyed.

The PIRLS study was not the first to demonstrate our education woes. The 2007 Southern and East African Consortium Educational Quality Survey of grade 6 learners tested for mathematics and reading found that South Africa performed below most of our African peers, with many learners possessing no basic reading and numeracy skills.

If children have not learnt how to read by the third grade, they lack the wherewithal to read-to-learn. This leads to difficulties in comprehending academic concepts and disinterest in schooling, which can result in dropping out.

Those that eventually reach matric are unlikely to pass or the schooling system will, as always, simply delegate its failure to tertiary institutions, only to have these children drop out there.

What is the importance of this? Several points. Firstly, it is strange that education, a subject of immense importance to the country’s and humanity’s development, does not receive the attention it deserves throughout the year.

We should therefore move away from the practice of discussing education only during the period when matric results are released, thus to compete with the revelry and inattentiveness of the end-of-year period. It should be our permanent focus as a nation.

Secondly, as we ready ourselves to celebrate and mourn the 2019 matric results, we should seriously consider a re-examination of the schooling system – which need not be a lengthy process – relative to the NDP’s objectives and commitments. There are several things that simply do not add up.

For example, the NDP was launched in parliament in August 2012. Cabinet adopted the plan the following month in September. The NDP correctly lamented persisting “low-quality education in historically disadvantaged parts of the school system” and “the grade promotion of learners who are not ready in the primary and early secondary phases” which “leads to substantial dropout before the standardised matric examination”.

It proposed that “the acceptable level of performance be defined as 50% and above and the target of learners and schools performing at this level by 2030 be set at 80%”.

However, in its national policy on promotion released in December 2012, i.e. a few months after the adoption of the NDP, the DBE revised the performance percentage down to “40% in three subjects, one of which is an official language at Home Language level, and 30% in three subjects”.

This is clearly at odds with the NDP’s objectives and commitments and suggests that despite what we say in the plan, we are in fact walking backwards with respect to improving the quality of education.

This at a time when education receives the largest share of the national budget – with a R262.4bn or 16.7% of the total budget in the current financial year alone – while we realise little value for the high expenditure.

We have to stop papering over the cracks and adopt what can only amount to an emergency national action plan, radically to raise the literacy and numeracy skills of our children. Otherwise, we will harvest a bumper of negatives: we will soon have to import skilled labour en masse, fail to achieve the goals set in the NDP and perpetuate apartheid education in a democracy.

Thirdly, it is about time that we had an open and frank discussion about one of the elephants in the room – the pedigree of our teachers, their commitment to teaching and the oftentimes destructive role of teachers unions.

The sad truth is that some of our teachers treat the profession as but an avenue for emolument than a calling and a construction site for a new, skilled and worldly nation imbued with ethical and democratic values.

In this, they are supported by teachers’ and union federations, some of whose leaders have, over time, come to see their positions as transition posts to leadership positions in the ruling party and the government.

So, desirous of the political base on the back of which they can realise their ultimate goal, these leaders do little if at all to enhance their members’ skills set, commitment and capacity to teach and therefore serve the nation.

To the extent that conduct like this and similar order is injurious to the national interest, it must be put exposed without casting aspersions on especially conscientious teachers. As the Japanese say: “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.”

More broadly, there is a case to be made about the necessity of a similar discussion throughout the essential services sections of the public service. Besides it being an economic necessity, it is a moral imperative, an unavoidable balancing act between rights on the one hand and responsibilities on the other.

Fourthly, there is no gainsaying the fact that a child’s performance at school also reflects the parents’ attention to her or his schooling. Granted, matric results mirror the fitful performance of the schooling system as a whole. But parents, immediate and extended families as well as communities, cannot exonerate themselves from the forthcoming matric results, bitter or sweet.

In the 1980s and earlies 1990s, the oppressed commanded a strong civil society movement which advocated for changes in education and served as an important agent for accountability by learners, parents, teachers and authorities alike.

Unfortunately, it folded at the dawn of democracy. It is about time that we resuscitated it, albeit under new conditions.

*Mashile-Nkosi is executive chairperson of Kalagadi Manganese, a mining company in Johannesburg

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