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The establishment of a ministerial committee, that will investigate the promotion requirements and standards of the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, is an admission of a crisis in education and also a shallow attempt at addressing that crisis.
The perennial changes within the education system since the advent of democracy do not bode well for the country’s education. This has deepened the education crisis even further. As much as apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the UN, one can boldly say that education under apartheid was much better than at present in terms of efficacy.
That there exists a crisis in education is evident by the fact that it has become common to have pupils who graduate from primary school without having learnt the basics of reading, writing and counting.
It is also a truism that the standard of a matric certificate, not surprisingly, leaves much to be desired.
The crisis is not only limited to poor pupil performance, but extends to other variables such as the virtual collapse in discipline by teachers and pupils.
In some schools, authority has become a foreign concept as teachers and pupils engage in acts of ill-discipline and sheer anarchy. Furthermore, governance in most schools, especially in those in townships, is in a state of dysfunction.
It is sad to note that even during apartheid, pupils could read, write and count. Stating this is by no means an attempt to glorify the evil system of apartheid.
The pertinent question in this regard is: where did it all go wrong when the future held so much promise?
There are no easy answers to this vexing question. In trying to analyse where the wheels started to come off, a finger can be pointed at the general zeal to discard everything that had to do with the apartheid past and to introduce completely new systems that had not undergone thorough scrutiny.
Experimentation with different systems of education with the advent of successive ministers of education, rendered pupils guinea pigs, sacrificed at the altar of political expedience.
The minister’s response to the crisis should therefore be seen in this context – as a desperate attempt to get the nation to focus attention on matric results and not see the crisis bedevilling schooling in general. School does not start at matric and any effort to address the education crisis should start at the primary level, including the Early Childhood Development stages. A return to the basics is necessary where pupils can be equipped with the skills to read, write and count.
The skills would enable pupils to grow academically and cope with the demands of higher learning. Without them, they are doomed to perpetual illiteracy.
Once again, it needs to be pointed out that the quality of education during apartheid cannot be said to have been high. However, what could never be doubted was the standard of teaching, which was of a relatively high quality.
In any society, the quality of teaching is a key determinant of the success or failure of any education system.
During apartheid, teachers had to contend with suppressive laws, but never wavered in their commitment to impart their knowledge and skills to those entrusted into their care. They would teach under the most trying of circumstances and took pride in their duties. They personified the contention that teaching is a noble profession.
They understood the moral dimension of education by placing the interests of the children before their own. They had a genuine concern for the welfare of their pupils as if they were their own offspring.
The next vexing question to ask is: do we still have those types of teachers? A quick answer to this would be a resounding NO, although there are exceptions.
First, most teachers in our schools do not have a love for learning and are thus wrongly placed in their profession.
Second, they lack the technical proficiency and interpersonal competence, essential for their curriculum-delivery responsibilities.
The worst injustice to befall our education was the abdication of authority by the education department to the unions, especially the self-serving and anarchic SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). Being aware of their numeric strength, Sadtu holds our education to ransom by undermining all efforts to normalise schooling.
The union will not utter a word or lift a finger to call to order its members who engage in acts such as late coming, bunking, chronic absenteeism and other even more wicked acts that undermine schooling.
Union members regard themselves as untouchables who are above any authority. They claim to owe their allegiance to the union and not the department that employs them. The failure by the department to rein in Sadtu and reclaim its authority continues to wreak havoc and exacerbate the education crisis.
The nation cannot afford to have a situation where the largest teacher union stands opposed to the department that employs teachers.
The two structures need to work towards the normalisation of education that would in turn help to address the crisis.
Channels of continuous communication should be opened between the two to identify common challenges and propose long-term solutions that would go a long way in addressing the crisis in education.
The two structures owe it to the nation to countenance the crisis as the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.
l Nathaniel Lee is a Joburg commentator with a special interest in education.