We need Education Sys­tem 2.0

With schools struc­tured along the lines of what no won­der we’re in trou­ble

CityPress - - Voices - Voices@ city­press. co. za

An education sys­tem must al­ways be de­signed for a pur­pose. Education must not be con­fused with a recre­ational ac­tiv­ity meant to keep the young ones oc­cu­pied while their par­ents are at work or busy with other is­sues. Education is the nerve cen­tre of any na­tion and de­ter­mines its so­cioe­co­nomic fu­ture. It is through education that a coun­try de­vel­ops the types of skills it re­quires for the good of the whole pop­u­la­tion. It is through education that real na­tion­hood is de­vel­oped, its value sys­tem is built and re­la­tions with other na­tions are de­fined.

The colo­nial and apartheid govern­ment’s education sys­tem had as its prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tive the de­vel­op­ment of skills to build the ca­pac­ity of a mi­nor­ity, which was to be dom­i­nant over the ma­jor­ity. It built a set of val­ues to en­trench and en­force su­prem­a­cist poli­cies and, more im­por­tantly, avoid any de­pen­dence on ex­ter­nal skills for the most im­por­tant aspects of the life of the coun­try.

In that de­sign process, the education sys­tem was struc­tured to re­alise per­fec­tion in the skills base of the mi­nor­ity and to en­sure the ma­jor­ity re­mained an un­skilled work­force. This was why the apartheid sys­tem – de­spite ma­jor in­ter­na­tional pres­sures – man­aged to de­velop the econ­omy to what it be­came while sus­tain­ing an un­holy political sys­tem through struc­tures such as the Broeder­bond. It built mas­sive education and other so­cial and eco­nomic in­fra­struc­ture for the ben­e­fit of the mi­nor­ity it served.

The ad­vent of democ­racy meant the ma­jor­ity gained ac­cess to, among other things, the education sys­tem that was de­signed for apartheid’s pur­poses. What did not hap­pen, how­ever, was any de­lib­er­ate re­design of the sys­tem to ad­dress the needs and chal­lenges of a de­vel­op­men­tal demo­cratic state.

Ac­cess did not mean equal­ity and rel­e­vance; it meant a scram­ble to ben­e­fit from an education sys­tem de­signed for a pur­pose ir­rel­e­vant to what the new coun­try needed.

As one lis­tens to the lat­est de­bates about the state of education and its out­comes, one won­ders whether we should ex­pect any­thing bet­ter than what we get. The re­al­ity re­mains that the de­sign of apartheid’s education sys­tem con­tin­ues to ex­ist. In sim­ple terms, noth­ing much has changed, ex­cept purely cos­metic al­ter­ations to an oth­er­wise badly de­signed sys­tem.

As the In­de­pen­dent Ex­am­i­na­tion Board an­nounced its 98.3% ma­tric pass rate for 2015 of its 10 200-odd ma­tric­u­lants, the coun­try’s qual­ity-as­sur­ance body, Umalusi, an­nounced a sig­nif­i­cant drop among the 800 000-odd ma­tric­u­lants in the pub­lic school­ing sys­tem.

Some of the rea­sons given for the cause of the drop would be amus­ing if they were not so in­sult­ing. Th­ese in­cluded the sup­pos­edly higher stan­dard of the ques­tion pa­pers, the im­proved qual­ity of mark­ing and the is­sue of English be­ing used as the lan­guage of in­struc­tion for those who do not speak it as their home lan­guage.

The num­ber of dropouts and the num­ber of chil­dren fail­ing ma­tric is ab­nor­mal.

Per­haps the first as­sump­tion we must dis­pel is that we have a qual­ity education sys­tem. Surely, if that were the case, we would not have such a high dropout rate and there would not be so many ques­tions about the skills base of those who com­plete ma­tric, and then bat­tle at univer­sity and else­where.

No­body has ad­vo­cated for a drop in stan­dards. That is an is­sue that must not even be dis­cussed be­cause it is a threat to the proper de­vel­op­ment of our coun­try. What is at is­sue is the na­ture of the qual­ity we re­quire rel­a­tive to our needs.

One of the big­gest prob­lems is how we as­sess the education sys­tem through the ma­tric pass rate. We seem fix­ated with mass pro­duc­tion, which is a de­sign of an apartheid sys­tem whose fo­cus was pro­duc­ing enough hew­ers of wood and draw­ers of wa­ter.

There is an even more dis­turb­ing phe­nom­e­non: the pow­ers that be find­ing the flim­si­est of ex­cuses to jus­tify this na­tional calamity. The ex­cuse that chil­dren are “pro­gressed” in Grade 11 is an­other of the ridicu­lous propo­si­tions of our time.

One won­ders what ev­i­dence the pow­ers that be need to ac­cept that there is ev­i­dence of a real prob­lem in our education sys­tem. We spend far more than our African coun­ter­parts on education, but the qual­ity of our out­comes is far below what much poorer African coun­tries achieve.

It is pre­cisely be­cause we have this sit­u­a­tion that a proper re­design of the education sys­tem is war­ranted, in­stead of scorn and blame be­ing heaped on our chil­dren. The qual­ity of education for the pre­vi­ously dis­ad­van­taged is not im­prov­ing. We need to in­vest more in teacher train­ing and de­vel­op­ment. We must im­prove ac­cess for pupils with dis­abil­i­ties and learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.

With a high dropout rate, poor ba­sic education in­fra­struc­ture, not enough qual­i­fied teach­ers in math­e­mat­ics, sci­ences and other gate­way sub­jects, An­nual Na­tional As­sess­ments that do not serve the pur­pose for which they were ini­ti­ated, and so on, the ev­i­dence that we need to go back to the draw­ing board is there for all to see.

Th­ese hard facts raise the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of whether the de­sign of apartheid’s education sys­tem must be al­lowed to con­tinue. It should be log­i­cal that a new de­sign will, of ne­ces­sity, have to tackle the root causes of the prob­lems in our education sys­tem, whether re­lated to re­sourc­ing, struc­tures, sys­tems, at­ti­tudes or cul­ture.

The mere in­tro­duc­tion of new cur­ricu­lum changes will never ad­dress the in­sti­tu­tion­alised prob­lems caused by the faulty de­sign of the sys­tem it­self.

Fight­ing for the his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged to have ac­cess to schools for the his­tor­i­cally ad­van­taged does not, and can­not, ad­dress the over­all de­sign is­sues.

There is enough ev­i­dence to demon­strate that the big­gest con­trib­u­tor to youth un­em­ploy­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, is not nec­es­sar­ily slow eco­nomic growth, but the low skills base of those who com­plete 12 years of ba­sic education. There can­not be eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment un­less we have the req­ui­site skills to make it hap­pen; we can­not have the req­ui­site skills un­less we have an education sys­tem that can pro­duce those skills; and we can­not have such an education sys­tem un­less we de­sign it.

There is also enough ev­i­dence to show that the con­tin­ued pres­sure on our so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem is the prod­uct of a fail­ing education sys­tem. The same can be said of our lev­els of crime.

The last thing we need is for the na­tion to fix­ate on pass rates in­stead of deal­ing with the qual­ity of the education sys­tem we need to ad­vance this oth­er­wise great na­tion.

As long as we en­gage in fu­tile de­bates about the stan­dard of ques­tion pa­pers, English as a prob­lem and the haz­ards of im­proved mark­ing, while re­main­ing dis­tracted by sta­tis­tics, we fail to re­design the education sys­tem to meet the re­quire­ments of a de­vel­op­ing, demo­cratic state.

As tough a task as that might prove to be, it is likely to be more cost-ef­fec­tive in the long run. Man­nya prac­tises law and is a for­mer pub­lic ser­vant

PHOTO: GALLO IM­AGES / SOWETAN / AN­TO­NIO MUCHAVE

FAILED BY AN OB­SO­LETE SYS­TEM? Pupils in an over­crowded class­room at Paardekraal Pri­mary School, which was filled be­yond ca­pac­ity in 2013, with 1 600 pupils di­vided into 31 classes

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