As we embark on a new school year, now is an opportune time to ask some difficult questions about whether we are doing enough to give our country’s children the education they deserve, writes Dr Mamphela Ramphele, co-founder of ReimagineSA.

It has been clear for decades that our education sector is in crisis, with all too many children struggling to complete schooling that prepares them for the modern world, Yet we must ask whether the solutions proposed for this challenge address what really ails our school system.

The proposed Grade 9 certificate by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, does not confront the root causes of poor quality education. The question we should be asking ourselves as a society is why after 25 years of poor-quality education outcomes we are still struggling to confront the root causes of this tragedy? Is there perhaps a mindset that propels us to have low expectations of our children, our teachers and ourselves?

What society sets 30% and 40% as pass rates for its children in a modern knowledge driven global community? What society tolerates 20% absenteeism of teachers on Mondays and Fridays, rising to 33% at every month-end? What society tolerates the culture that has normalised the practice that in schools serving predominantly poor black children only an average 3.5 hours per school day is spent teaching compared to 6.5 hours in the middle and upper-class schools?

All children are born with an innate capability to be the best at what interests them provided the environment in the home, community, school and wider society nurtures them with love and support to self-actualise. We have a system failure that results in close to 50% of each age cohort of pupils starting school each year ending up dropping out of school before Grade 12. Of those who write Matric a tiny percentage (14% Bachelor and 12% Diploma passes) ends up with high enough grades to enter tertiary levels studies. The drop-out rate at tertiary is 25% with only 4% of the cohort eventually obtaining a degree.

How in the world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution do we think we can be competitive?

It is unthinkable that a society that claims to believe in social justice would even contemplate throwing the very children we have failed out of the school system with a meaningless Grade 9 certificate! These children are known from international and Africa based studies to be unable to read with meaning, nor write sensibly, nor compute numbers to save their lives! How can we turn our backs to them in the name of giving them a choice? How are they to navigate our struggling TVETs and college systems with no professional school help?

Have we not learned anything from the 30% matriculants who are stranded among the ranks of the unemployed with equally meaningless Learnership Certificates? The latter only benefit those well connected enough to mine the rich ores of the largely failed Sectoral Education and Training Authority (SETA) system. What kind of society continuously undermines the seed of its future in the name of experimentation with models that have failed elsewhere?

We have many examples of excellent schools operating in poor troubled communities yet succeeding in nurturing talent and inspiring excellence. Mbilwi High School in Venda, the Leap Schools in Langa, Diepsloot, Jane Furse; Inanda in Durban townships; and many more. The success factor in all is dedicated teachers with a learner focussed approach and promotion of pride in the identity, language and culture of all children.

Poverty can’t end without quality education

A recent study by the IMF, Struggling to Make the Grade, reviews the work by our very own experts, including economist Servaas van den Berg, and concludes that our core problems of poverty, inequality, and unemployment are unlikely to be effectively addressed without tackling the chronic quality problems in our school system.

The salient factors they identify for interventions are well known to our public policy leaders as well as by the private sector that stand to benefit from higher education outcomes. The study identifies practical interventions to address these problems.

First, we need to tackle the weak content knowledge by teachers in schools serving poor communities that impairs their ability to even assess the severity of the quality problems in their own settings. Longer term teacher training interventions have a large impact on learner outcomes, especially if boosted by adaptive instruction methods such as flashcards and computer aids.

Second, language of instruction is one of the biggest barriers to quality education. Mother tongue instruction is universally accepted as the best foundation for building confident positive identities in learners and enhancing learning outcomes. Our government must pursue an active program of investing in indigenous language teaching and learning.

The imposition of English as a medium of instruction under the guise of parental choice has caused untold damage to our education. There is a widespread misguided view by many black people that learning in English is best for future job prospects of their children. Many of the teachers are products of poor teaching by teachers hobbled by this English language bias in our education system that perpetuates an inferiority complex amongst African indigenous language speakers.

Third, teacher pay in our system is competitive internationally, but it fails to incentivise higher learner outcomes because of its flat structure. Performance-based pay, as is the case in most professions, would increase accountability for higher quality outcomes. Experiences in India and Kenya show significant impact on learner outcomes from performance-based pay. Such pay could also be useful in attracting good teachers to poor rural communities.

Fourth, principals’ roles should be extended beyond administrative and managerial duties to include instructional leadership to model excellence in teaching. Providing enough support to schools to enhance the school environment is critically important in poor communities. Consideration should be given to shared sports and other amenities to support the holistic development of young people and create dynamic enjoyable extracurricular programs.

Community ownership critical

Fifth, greater community involvement in school education is critical to encouraging parents and other members of the adult community to take ownership of the school and put it at the centre of their community. Community ownership enhances safety and security for school property. Every school could create space for community vegetable gardens and indigenous tree planting to raise awareness about nature, environmental health and climate change. Schools as centres of communities provide avenues for engagements that build stronger solidarity between parents and teachers in service of better quality learning outcomes and professional satisfaction.

The start of a new decade calls for a fresh commitment to solving the problems that have plagued our educational system for many years. We need to have the humility to admit our missteps and not compound them with wrong-headed experiments. Promoting vocational and technical training learning pathways need to be seamlessly connected to our school system as successful countries such as Germany, Singapore and others are doing. Our children deserve nothing less as they enter 2020 full of hopes and dreams for their future.

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