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As constitutional poetry would have it, Judge Jody Kollapen’s recent ruling against the Department of Education proved to be most relevant before the ink had even dried on the court papers. As you will recall, he ruled in May that the Limpopo Education Department’s failure to provide textbooks was a violation of the rights of pupils.
Frankly, the education crisis is the greatest shame of the post-apartheid era. It’s not just that so many children are still subjected to the absence of running water, electricity, books, lunchtime feeding schemes, science labs and other infrastructure – it is a violation of our constitution to deny our children entitlements that are critical to their personal development.
But it is also necessary to be careful not to create too close a correlation between the delivery of physical infrastructure and the achievement of the goals of education.
Technical solutions are indeed necessary and we hope that this judgment and subsequent exposition of the depth of the textbook saga may result in improved procurement processes and more rigorous management.
However, the issues that most threaten the justice our Born Frees should receive have less to do with the availability of chalk and more to do with, chiefly, the quality of teaching in our schools.
The pursuit of justice in education through the legal system and the events of the past few weeks have forced the deconstruction of an otherwise symbiotic relationship in education between the material and non-material. Through the focus on the material, one is reminded of a very important question raised by TW Luke: “Is it (education) that is being understood here or is its identity being evaded in reducing it to a subset of practicable measurements?”
It would not be fair to assume that the plaintiffs intended to obscure the real nature of education through this court case. To the contrary, this past month’s events proved this a worthy battle. However, the ironic effect of this ruling is that by defining justice as technical delivery, the Basic Education Department is inadvertently served a victory. Because, in reality, the solution to broken windows is so much simpler than wrenching ourselves out of the “world’s worst” categories when it comes to cognition.
The latter challenge is where the greater chunk of the struggle should be located.
Let us be reminded of our system’s cognitive failures. Cognition here refers to the mental processes meant to be harnessed through schooling – understanding language, using it to formulate thoughts and problem-solving, among others. TEACH SA summarises the problem with these facts: SA scored the lowest in a 2006 study titled Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. In maths and science, we were the worst out of 39 countries in the 1998 Trends in International Mathematics and Science study, having scored even poorer marks than in 1994. In 2007, the department declined to participate.
And while we’re expected to have faith in the matric pass rate increasing (up by roughly 2 percent to 70.2% in 2011), there is less discussion about the close to 50 percent attrition rate that leads most of our Grade 1s to ditch the system before reaching matric.
University of the Free State Rector and Vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen adds greater perspective to this discussion, often arguing that the current definition of university entrance is not commensurate with the capabilities required to become a university student.
Unfortunately many of us, being outside the formal education system, are unable to understand what is practically implied by these statistics.
I didn’t understand the breadth and complexity of our challenges until I immersed myself in that reality last year, when I volunteered to teach extra history at a high school in my community.
One of my first insights was that my pupils were unfamiliar with the map of the world, seldom having seen it. This is inconceivable for people growing up in a globalised world, yet it is a reality for many of our Born Frees. The more concerning issue regarding their understanding of geography was conceptual. A town could be a country or a continent. When asked what the capital city of Egypt is, I received answers such as Europe and Cape Town.
As South Africans, the prospects of a Cape Town in Egypt or a Kimberley in the Democratic Republic of Congo should be logically impossible. Yet these are the type of guesses I often received from Grade 10, 11 and 12 pupils. Similarly, when asked whether Tunisia is south or north of SA, a many guessed it must be south.
In time, I came to appreciate that my pupils have taken English as a second language since they started school around 2002. They are expected to do all subjects apart from their mother tongue in English. This creates a fundamental barrier to understanding text and, consequently, learning.
We once watched a documentary that opened with a line to this effect: “20 million Ethiopians depend on the coffee trade for their survival”.
In my class we first had to resolve confusion around the term “survival”, which some thought to mean that some Ethiopians couldn’t live without drinking coffee. Then we spent time learning long division to determine what 20 million of 80 million might mean as a percentage because none of them knew the answer or had a systematic way of arriving at one. At this point, I realised they didn’t know the times tables and did not understand the relationship between division and multiplication. By the time we were done unpacking the opening line of the documentary, our lesson was over.
The problem they were supposed to unravel was about imbalanced trade relations, not basic arithmetic. This is what cognitive failure looks like, merrily existing, in this school at least, behind brick walls, ceilings, and a functional feeding scheme.
We must thus be cautious of this court victory resulting in a narrowing of our understanding of the education crisis and the requisite solutions.
The Born Frees I know have wasted their lives going to school for an education that will hardly qualify them as waitresses. Their challenges are cognitive, due to bad teaching.
Thus while science labs are necessary, their absence is not responsible for capable pupils being unable to read and write. So let us use the momentum of this ruling to continue the pursuit of justice, knowing that at its heart is a willingness to confront our most uncomfortable truths.
n Mthembi is an entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector. She writes in her personal capacity as a commentator.