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An unequal education

Victor Dlamini
Opinion

An entire generation faces getting an education that no one wants, unless urgent action is taken.


Unless something is done to improve the dismal education at the majority of the schools beyond regularly tinkering with the syllabus, an entire generation will be doomed to receiving an education no one wants. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the country as a whole because our competitiveness as a nation depends on the success of our education system. Given that so many believe that the so called ‘born-frees’ will determine South Africa’s future, it’s fair to say only those ones that acquire a solid education will be the first-class citizens in the socio-economic sense. Upward mobility doesn’t begin in the workplace, but in the classroom. 

Parents fixate on high quality education because they know that education remains the best way to achieve social mobility. Those that do not make it at school and from there onto college are doomed to a life as second-class citizens. So it makes sense for parents to fight for their children to go to the best schools, even it means they must sacrifice a great deal to afford sky high school fees. But in a society whose constitution guarantees equality, it is an indictment of our leaders, both private and public that such high levels of inequality in education exist and are even taken for granted. 

For as long as the bulk of the education system is dysfunctional, parents can’t be blamed for cherry picking the very best schools for their children, even if it drowns some of them financially.  But they know that a poor education will condemn their children to second tier choices and that’s why some are prepared to gamble everything to beat the odds of an unequal education. 

On paper South Africans love equality, but it seems that an unequal education is one of those things that we have resigned ourselves to. The gap between the schools that have everything and those that have nothing is widening. Superficially the difference may be seen most clearly in the high pass rate at the schools that have everything, and catastrophic failure rates at the bottom schools. But in the long run, it is the country itself that will be sucked into a vortex of failure if some are educated and others uneducated. 

The stories are legion of the schools at which parents register their children on the waiting list as soon as they are born. Parents know that getting their child into the right school can make all the difference in the child’s chances for success in later life. The manicured lawns, fine facilities and stately buildings at some of the top private schools reinforces that these are institutions whose affairs are in order. Contrast that with some of the schools with broken windows, parched grounds and wide-open gates and you have a recipe for educational disaster. 

The alarm has long been sounded for our education system, but instead of any real improvements, with each passing year it becomes clear that things are deteriorating. Whilst the politicians, together with the technocrats and their army of advisers gather in conference venues to diagnose what ails our education system, parents are busy making choices for their children. Given the poor state of teaching and the many problems that plague so many public schools, it’s little wonder that those parents that can afford to avoid the bad schools. 

Sadly the income of parents, rather than the academic ability of the children, determines whether they end up in schools of hope or despair. The most desirable schools with dedicated, even great teachers and state of the art infrastructure have astonishingly long waiting lists.  Sadly the other list, that of schools that offer very little hope, grows even longer. It’s a well-known fact that some parents have sacrificed everything for the education of their children. But even a cursory glance at the fees at some of the top schools puts them well beyond the financial muscle of even the most determined parent who is not in the middle class.

It’s an admission that quality education has remained an elusive goal when Panyaza Lesufi says ‘We are confident that quality education will happen in our lifetime.’ Lesufi, the spokesperson for The Department of Basic Education said these words in 2011 as the department announced yet another education system, this time known as CAPS. Successive ministers of Education have brought their own enthusiasm for education and each of them has promised to fix our broken system once and for all, but so far there is little to show for their enthusiasm or even their planning. 

We have now resigned ourselves to the fact that every five years or so, a new idea, a new acronym and new instruction manuals have accompanied announcements of a new curriculum or education system. But none of these have worked and their failure to breathe life into the country’s educational system sends even more parents scrambling for the few places in private or semi-private schools. 

The fact that the system is always being changed within such short periods shows that there is already a sense of panic. If people had faith in the systems that they have introduced, they would give teachers a chance to bed down any new system before even thinking of confusing teachers more with yet another system. It would not be surprising to find that teachers are cynical of any of the new systems, knowing that they too won’t last, but will soon be replaced by a new system. 

South Africans should not take any more reassurances that education will be fixed by politicians on their own, or by their army of advisers. Citizens need to push to play a greater role, perhaps an equal one to government. Instead of ‘receiving education’, South Africans should be shaping it. Only in this way will they say no to ridiculous moves like declaring 30% a pass mark. Education is too important to be left to politicians alone and the sooner we all realize the crisis it is we will say no to any further meaningless tinkering and instead play our role in strengthening this important foundation for the country’s future. 

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