We are letting the class of ’76 down

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PURI DEVJEE

No chance: A teacher stands in her classroom with her 124 Grade 4 pupils. Our approach to teaching and learning is causing us to shed more than 500 000 children a year and leaving the majority of Grade 6 pupils illiterate and innumerate, says Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Picture: Puri Devjee

The ideals of the 1976 young people who sparked the revolution that led to our freedom today have been systematically betrayed.

The cause of the betrayal is failure of vision, leadership, management and governance. All citizens are implicated in this betrayal, by virtue of our failure to act and raise our voice against the theft of hope from successive generations.

The facts are no longer in dispute. Ours is an education system that is marked by its failure to provide facilities adequate to the definition of school.

Despite international literature, we still fail to have every child aged above three in early learning programmes. We have a “one-size-fits-all” teaching and learning approach that is shedding more than 500 000 children a year and leaving most children in Grade 6 illiterate and innumerate. We have inadequate teaching and learning support despite our sophisticated information and communication technology networks, which could be providing e-learning across the length and breadth of our country and closing the digital divide.

We have significant numbers of teachers and principals who are ill-suited to teach and lead. We have standards of performance that reflect shockingly low expectations of teachers and pupils.

We have a failed public school system.

What is needed now is leadership committed to the ideals of that 1976 generation that is captured in the commitment to social justice that is the pillar of our constitution. The depths to which education has sunk and the devastating impact it is having as illustrated in the 4 million young people not in school, not in training and not in employment requires presidential leadership. But our president seems to be otherwise occupied.

The crisis of schools without teachers in the Eastern Cape and without textbooks in Limpopo is testimony to a minister who is unable to lead and manage. The unemployment of more than 600 000 graduates is a crying shame of a higher education system that is not equipping young people for careers. The latter is also a blot on the copy book of our private sector that is also failing to lead and continues to insist on experience from young graduates who have few opportunities to garner such experience.

SA needs to radically transform this failed education system. We have the financial resources – R236 billion in the 2012/13 Budget, at least R5bn in private sector annual funding to the sector, plus the 1 percent payroll taxes going to the sector education and training authorities (Setas) amounting to no less than R5bn annually. We have the intellectual and innovation resources to imagine, plan and execute an overhaul of this destructive system and restore hope to young people. We have enough models and experiments in the 600 successful public sector schools, many private sector/civil society initiatives such as the SA Extraordinary Schools Coalition supported by Bridge, as well as a growing numbers of affordable private schools. What is needed is leadership to coalesce and galvanise these efforts into a nationwide movement that brings the government, the private sector, civil society, parents and teachers as well as students to work together for a better tomorrow.

There is a growing movement of young people who are taking ownership of their country and leading their future’s shaping. SA has one of the youngest demographic profiles in the world – the average age of our population is 24.6 years with 41 percent of the population below 20 years. Turning this demographic profile into a competitive advantage requires a mindset change. Excellent and equitable education is the best investment we can make as a nation to position ourselves in the global competitive knowledge-driven economy.

Adults need to change their attitude to leadership to enable young people to realise their potential. A starting point is change in language. For as long as we refer to young people as “a lost generation”, we will extinguish their dreams. To the extent that we regard young people as “ticking time bombs” we are continuing to rob them of the self-confidence to grasp opportunities.

Young people in any society are a generative force that drives future prosperity and shapes the leadership of tomorrow. The 1976 generation has shown us the way.

The radical mindset change that is required to turn around our failed education system must start with the acknowledgement of our complicity as citizens in the face of earlier signs of failure over the past 18 years. The legacy of racism and the superiority and inferiority complexes it has left us with has silenced many voices.

White people do not want to be labelled racists, so they withhold comment on obvious failures of leadership and management. Black people do not want to be heard criticising a majority-black government because that is labelled counter-revolutionary. Many young people are following populist leaders in search of opportunities to be part of the “tenderpreneural class” because political connections rather than hard work seem to lead to access to phenomenal wealth. Parents have kept their distance because they believe that they have neither the voice nor energy to challenge a system that is destroying their children’s future. All these are signs of a wounded society in need of healing.

We committed ourselves in the preamble of our constitution to heal the wounds of the past, but we did not create the mechanisms to do so. We now urgently need to link hands in circles of healing in the age-old African conversational style to reconnect eyeball to eyeball. We need honest conversations about our own complicity in the failures of the past 18 years and discussions of how we take the experiments in radical transformation around us and galvanise them into generating a momentum for a great success story.

We need to commit to ongoing healing between and among citizens at the personal, professional and political/societal levels to rid ourselves of the tolerance of failure of leadership, mediocrity, incompetence and unethical behaviour that is destroying our social fabric.

We have the capacity for greatness to which we now must rise. We owe it to the generation of 1976 youth leaders. Let us rise to our responsibilities as citizens.


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