It will be a pity to lose our education wetlands

2014-07-09 10:00

Your editorial last week, “Dump new land proposal” (City Press, June 29 2014), rightly states that an arbitrary division and reallocation of functioning farms “would devastate agriculture and severely compromise South Africa’s food security”.

Likewise, the reforms proposed by new Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi could have an equally devastating effect on our educational landscape.

It sounds so laudable, even self-evident, to amalgamate “rich” and “poor” state schools, working on the assumption that you could raise the standard in one school without depressing the standard in the other. A more likely outcome is that both schools would be wrecked.

Good state schools are the wetlands of our education system: essential and fragile. They are essential at a practical and at a moral, nation-building level.

At a practical level, they provide a good-to-excellent education. The top former Model C schools routinely produce a bachelor’s/exemption matric pass at a rate of 95%.

Importantly, this education is available to learners paying anything from nothing to R30?000 per year. Up to 30% of learners at these schools are subsidised directly by fee-paying parents. The phalanxes of learners marching into universities from these schools come from all walks of life.

On the nation-building level, the best former Model C schools provide the most diverse learning environments in the country. They educate leaders who understand, from experience or from their peers, what it means and what it costs to leave home at 4am every day, as well as what it means and what it takes to win the national debating trophy.

What a pity if this excellence, like a wetland, has to disappear before we understand its value.

The fragility of the good state schools stems from public opinion, as moulded by the media. It is difficult to understand why the media routinely lump into the category of “rich schools” those that cost R30?000 a year with schools that cost R100?000 a year. This misperception makes the schools vulnerable to arbitrary state action.

They are also vulnerable to parents, genuinely seeking the best educational haven for their children, blinded on the one hand by the terrible “private good, public bad” mantra that plays incessantly in our ears, and on the other by the well-funded marketing activities of private schools.

Even the corporate social investment sector is more likely to fund non-fee-paying schools, without counting the numbers of non-fee-paying learners who would benefit from a theatre, a science laboratory or a soccer field donated to a former Model C school.

What is the solution?

Fierce, active parents who believe in the importance of both diversity and excellence in shaping their children’s education, who will enrol their children and engage themselves in maintaining and growing.

Well-informed government officials see state schools for what they are: an unparalleled partnership. If the state did not pay the state teachers, the fees would double. If the parents did not pay the governing body teachers, the teacher numbers would halve.

Fee-paying parents contributed R12.2?billion directly into state schools last year, employing 37?000 teachers. If this was a business sector, we would be asking how we could protect it and nurture the innovation and growth happening there.

Of course, there is still work to be done. At the departmental level, government should be challenging all former Model C schools to a 30% exemption level, and providing at least some funding for those exemptions.

Not all excellent state schools are as diverse as they should be. Corporate social investment could assist by supporting a strong learning exchange between the stronger and weaker state schools: a two-way street of learning, not a patronising or unidirectional exchange.

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