All is not well in our schools

Education in South Africa: Has it come of age? asks Raj Isaac

In 1995, the Daily News ran a competition called “Solution Seekers”. The competition required readers to offer creative and practicable solutions to problems facing South Africa at that time.

One of the problems identified was the impoverished culture of learning in schools. My response to the question, “What steps can be taken to bring back a sound culture of learning in schools?” won first prize.

In my entry I noted that the culture of learning in a large number of schools had all but disappeared, with many children preferring simply not to attend school. Among those who attended school, many showed little enthusiasm for schoolwork, preferring instead to disrupt classes and to present work of a low standard.

Some problems I identified at the time were:

The solutions to the problems listed above appear self-evident. I made the point then, however, that “quick fix” solutions merely treated the symptoms of the problems and that there was a need for all stakeholders to focus on the causes of the problems for any long-lasting benefits. The aim of any programme of improvement was, I felt, to change the attitude of everyone concerned to seeing education as a worthwhile pursuit.

That was in 1995.

How has education changed in South Africa over the years? What is it like in 2016, 22 years into democracy? Has our education system come of age?

My general impression is that while education has grown in quantitative terms, its quality still leaves much to be desired.

Look at the problems listed again: Would it be remiss to see them as challenges existing even today?

Certainly, a larger budget has been allocated to education and there are more schools and more pupils.

However, despite interventions by the Department of Education and outside agencies, many schools still remain under-resourced and the drop-out rate from Grade 1 to Grade 12 is alarmingly high. Also, pupils in full school uniform are still seen loitering during school hours.

Our brightest pupils continue to do well despite the system, but are those pupils who pass matric with average and below-average symbols functionally literate to take their place in tertiary education, workplace and in society at large?

Many stakeholders think not.

Annually, when the national senior certificate (Grade 12) results are released, there is much fanfare and a knee-jerk reaction from the Department of Education.

Those schools and candidates who do well are praised, while the schools that do not live up to expectations are chastised and asked for “turnaround” strategies. Pressure is put on Grade 12 teachers.

The roots of poor results at the matric level run deep. Not least of the problems is a controversial system of promotion of pupils.

Furthermore, many teachers have to contend with pupils who enter high school with rudimentary skills in reading, writing and mathematics.

Clearly, the focus should not be only on Grade 12 teachers, but on teachers in all the grades, including the primary and early childhood phases.

In many cases, teachers have to contend with pupils who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, but this can be no excuse for some parents who have all, but abdicate their responsibility to oversee the education of their children.

Many teachers complain about the lack of pupil discipline. Teachers and principals have a constant battle with pupils who are not motivated to work, who break school rules and dabble in substance abuse.

In many cases misguided parents aid and abet their children and there is also a perception that the Department of Education offers little support. The school can only build on moral values taught at home.

The parents and the community at large can play a far greater role in the education of our children if they pay school fees, protect school buildings, keep a lookout for truant children, attend meetings and monitor homework.

Teaching in school is largely assessment-driven, with teachers under pressure to set and mark a large number of tasks. Accompanying such tasks is a moderation process that sometimes deteriorates to a mere completion of forms.

The marks that are given in many instances are not reliable. Any meaningful assessment should be followed up by work to remedy identified weaknesses.

However, given the huge administrative workload teachers have, large classes and a lengthy syllabus, this is not always done.

The present curriculum is not necessarily the best one for the country. As important as science and mathematics are, other subjects should not have the status of an afterthought. There is a need to review the curriculum with more attention given to sports and the arts for all pupils.

Amid this litany of things going wrong, there are pockets of excellence. There are schools that provide excellent education despite trying odds and teachers who go beyond the call of duty under difficult circumstances.

But clearly, all is not well.

Will our education come of age in the next 21 years?

Only time, and what we do with it, will tell.

* Raj Isaac has now retired, having served in education for 39 years as a teacher, a lecturer in a teacher-training college and as a subject adviser in the Department of Education.