Belfast school bat­tles a symp­tom of a cri­sis

Sunday Times - - OPINION - Mark Barnes

IMATRICULATED from Belfast High School (BHS) in what is now the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity of eMak­hazeni in Nkan­gala district, in Mpumalanga, in 1973. I was in­vited to be the guest speaker at a func­tion on May 13 to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1967 ma­tric class. I ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion with pride and en­thu­si­asm.

My school ca­reer can hardly be de­scribed as il­lus­tri­ous, other than per­haps for be­ing a trum­pet player in the cadet band which came first in South Africa in 1971. I was al­ways in trou­ble and only did se­lec­tively well in sub­jects for which I had a nat­u­ral ap­ti­tude.

BHS was a dual-medium, co-ed­u­ca­tion (English and Afrikaans, boys and girls) govern­ment high school. Pupils were gath­ered mainly from the lo­cal farm­ing com­mu­nity but in­cluded a few strays from as far away as Jo­han­nes­burg and Mozam­bique. For those who qual­i­fied, the fees were min­i­mal — my en­tire five years of high school ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing full board and lodg­ing, cost less than R1 000.

BHS was an or­di­nary school for or­di­nary peo­ple, but with high stan­dards of dis­ci­pline that de­liv­ered a stan­dard of ed­u­ca­tion good enough to get you into any ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion of your choice.

The food in the hos­tel was ba­sic but nour­ish­ing, and there were few ex­tras, un­less you could af­ford the oc­ca­sional 5c, which is what it cost to en­joy a cup of milk with lunch. I loved it. I have re­turned to the school a num­ber of times, just to wan­der about, but at the re­u­nion we got a closer look and were ex­posed to some of the facts and fig­ures.

The school is now an amal­ga­ma­tion of the pri­mary and high schools that were sep­a­rate in my time — eco­nomic ne­ces­sity, no doubt. Some things hadn’t changed. It was pour­ing with rain on that Satur­day morn­ing, but the boys were out prac­tis­ing rugby re­gard­less, bare­foot and as en­thu­si­as­tic as ever.

Some things have changed, for the worse. The school is sur­rounded by se­cu­rity fenc­ing, and the hos­tels were clearly in a state of ad­vanced de­cay. BHS is bat­tling, bat­tling to get a full com­ple­ment of trained teach­ing staff, bat­tling to main­tain fa­cil­i­ties and bat­tling to sur­vive fi­nan­cially, de­spite the very im­pres­sive ef­forts of the head­mas­ter and his team.

There isn’t enough money go­ing into ed­u­ca­tion, and there damn well should be.

Pri­vate schools, where sup­ply ex­ceeds de­mand, are funded by the par­ents. Govern­ment schools are be­ing left be­hind. Fur­ther pri­vati­sa­tion will only fur­ther en­trench the eco­nomic di­vide, so that’s not the so­lu­tion.

The state must as­sume full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fund­ing of school ed­u­ca­tion in South Africa, for all of its cit­i­zens. It’s not an ex­pense, it’s an in­vest­ment.

Fund­ing ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion can be done in part­ner­ship with busi­ness (the ultimate users of the prod­uct). The fund­ing of pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion would bet­ter be solved by a di­rect tax struc­ture, an ed­u­ca­tion tax, a

[Ed­u­ca­tion] is not an ex­pense, it’s an in­vest­ment

school tax, that goes di­rectly to the schools on a “meet the costs, bal­ance the books” ev­ery year ba­sis.

How should the money be spent? Ask the teach­ers and the par­ents. Un­til that’s done, any per­sonal ex­pen­di­ture on ed­u­ca­tion should be fully tax de­ductible.

Our un­em­ployed fig­ure, at 27.7%, is the high­est in 13 years. Its com­po­nents are in­creas­ingly the youth and those with an ed­u­ca­tion be­low ma­tric. We have 17 mil­lion peo­ple on so­cial grants, ex­pected to grow to 18 mil­lion within three years.

The way out of these eco­nom­i­cally crip­pling re­al­i­ties is ed­u­ca­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, ed­u­ca­tion. We can’t spend too much on it, and we can’t start too soon.

Barnes is CEO of the South African Post Of­fice

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