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06 JULY 2011
Fixing school foundations

by Graeme Bloch: Former DBSA education policy analyst. Currently visiting adjunct Professor at University of Witwatersrand Public and Development Management school (P+DM).

Recent ANAs (Annual National Assessments) are a serious wake-up call. Our kids are not getting it. Educationally, our country is in trouble.

Without foundations of literacy and numeracy, we will never get the high level skills we need as a nation, nor address poverty and inequality for development and growth. Where will we find accountants, engineers, doctors, poets, managers, scientists, musicians, to take our country forward to a great future?

Only 35% of our kids can read, with results ranging from 12% in Mpumalanga to a "high" 43% in Western Cape.

Nearly all white kids get through matric and some 60% go on to tertiary - while only 50% of black kids get to matric and 12% to university. Social cohesion and the end of race, which young people demand, recede dangerously into the background. Jobs and vocational training are seriously lacking.

Poor scores indicated by ANAs are nothing new. International tests, going by names like PIRLS, TIMMS, SACMEQ, have long shown we are bottom of class. Compared to far less resourced neighbours, we just don't get educational value for money, despite education being the largest item in the national budget at some 21%.

Nor are things worse than in the past, specifically under Bantu Education. Then, only 26% even went to secondary school (and we don't even know how many went to primary) - now some 50% get to matric. Then, there were about 8000 black matriculants, now close on 600000 of all colours write common exams and some 67% pass. Things are getting better slowly. But the world has moved on, India and Brazil are not waiting for us. Children today rightly expect equal opportunities for all.

It doesn't help to get desperate and make simplistic calls. Putting smart kids in good schools; expanding private schools; sharing facilities of ex-model C's; firing teachers and principals (who will do the firing and where will 27 000 brilliant new school heads come from?); might all be part of solutions. The bottom line is 60-80% of our kids are stuck in poor township and rural schools.

It is here we have to find fixes to take us forward.

Where are pockets of strength on which we can build?

Before the World Cup, we doubted ourselves. Yet there are enough examples of energy, experience and extensive concern by citizens to know where to start.

Despite unacceptable behaviours inside some teacher unions, there are good teachers and principals who show the way, who through dedication and organised inputs help their children to achieve. Dr Mathe at Bhukulani in Soweto sends SMS's when he falls below 95% matric passes and follows up individually on kids who miss any exam. In Cape Winelands, dedicated officials celebrate school literacy and numeracy achievements and provide professional support to struggling schools.

There are a host of community based projects that cluster schools to work on solutions. In Bitou/Plettenberg Bay a memorandum with the education district looks to achievement jointly. In Hantam/Colesberg and Bodibe Northwest, models for rural school development are pioneered and parents empowered, in the latter case parents even decided to march on traditional authorities to demand constructive involvement. Field Bands' Foundation teaches musical discipline; John Perlman's Dreamfields draws girls and boys into football achievement and takes them from villages to Pretoria, to stay in hotels and see the seat of government while they compete. There are numerous maths, literacy and science improvement programmes.

Some 25 000 kids under Equal Education marched peacefully on Human Rights Day for books and libraries. Soweto parents this year refused to send children to schools where toilets were in a shocking state. Teachers' unions participated in summits in Kwazulu Natal and North West, with parents, traditional leaders, religious leaders, officials and politicians.

What do we need?

We need a combination of all these things for there is sadly no quick fix. We should set clear targets and demand more of government.

Within 10 years, we can surely achieve 100% literacy passes if we work with dedication and urgency.

Ordinary citizens paying attention to progress of domestic workers' children; the plough-back movement that sees achievers from poor schools returning to make a difference; the experience and efforts of numerous corporate funders: Nothing will be quick, it involves hand holding and care over years, but we have to do it.

Is the glass half full, half empty, or is there no glass at all? Even results at good schools are scary with maximum 3-12% achieving very well. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on rugby and steroids, too much complacency, to be a truly great reading nation.

It doesn't help to trash government or teachers at every turn. Yes, they must lead. The scrapping of OBE; better workbooks; less paperwork; emphasis on foundations of learning; these are all correct moves. But we need more than good technical solutions.

Only when we mobilise ourselves will we get the government we deserve. Ministers of Basic and Higher Education seem more enamoured of their political organisations than their portfolios. Nowhere in the world will government deliver without public pressure.

Public pressure is too scattered. There is little agreement on priorities. Is it resources; health and poverty; better teacher training and school management; all of the above? How will we get there?

How much are we prepared to spend, for it will cost, whether eye-testing of kids or building libraries and staff-rooms in all schools. We have to develop common and agreed plans, as Equal Education's new education charter suggests, or continue to pull in all directions.

Today it is only our kids who suffer. Yet there is nothing wrong with our kids. If we teach them to fly, they will indeed shoot for the stars. At the moment, we fail our children on all fronts. We have to turn things around in schools, for the sake of our children and our common future.

It will not be easy – the road ahead is tough. We have barely started, though we at least all agree on how badly off we are.
Useful resources:

Graeme Bloch
Graeme Bloch has written and published widely, in particular on education, in both academic and more popular publications. Recent books include ‘Investment Choices for South African Education (ed with Chisholm, Fleisch and Mabizela: Wits University Press,); ‘Education, Growth, Aid and Development (ed with Chisholm and Fleisch: Hong Kong, 2008). He has just published ‘The Toxic Mix: What is wrong with South Africa’s schools and how to fix it’ (Tafelberg, 2009) Visit our website.

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