Education’s bitter stories

2013-08-23 00:00

CAN South Africans tell bedtime stories about the country’s education? Can we tell of something better than the twisted education system of apartheid? Should we resuscitate narratives about missionary education? Or should we be consumed by disappointment in the education system?

Educationists, politicians and concerned citizens have voiced their concerns, and a list of fundamental challenges has been raised repeatedly. There are concerns that children struggle to read, write and count at the appropriate age levels. Many are worried about curriculum policy shifts. Some argue that curriculum policy changes are full of internal dilemmas that deny the grand ideals of education. Many parents are worried about the recent behaviour of the teachers’ unions, which are undermining the Department of Education.

More important are the many bitter outcomes of these experiences. The economy is taking strain because education is struggling to meet the expectations of the market economy. The knock-on effect is felt at household level due to high levels of unemployment. Experience demands total reconfiguration of the system, and we have the resources and brains to do it. But can we swallow our pride? Can we put our differences aside and do what is best for our future citizens?

Many African leaders have raised the profile of education in their countries. A former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, saw education as the only weapon that would free Africans from colonialism and the shackles of ignorance and dependency.

History records countless rewards following improved forms of education. The industrial revolution of the Western nations redefined the competency-based learning systems. This legacy still champions the direction of a market-led economy.

Africa has a lot to say about liberation struggles and political education, but today, countries are measured by their ability to compete on international economic and technological stages. Nations are measured by their ability to develop talent and attract the best brains.

This begs the second question. What is it that we should be doing differently to maximise our presence in this space?

Nic Spaull, a researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, summarises the challenges of education in a recent article published in a Sunday newspaper. He says that the Department of Education has not put appropriate teacher in-service training in place for teachers to accumulate acceptable levels of content knowledge, especially in literacy and numeracy at the critical primary school level. If teachers have not mastered their subject areas at this level, how does one support the cognitive development of children?

The success of Western nations was due to their fascination for competency-based education. Many African countries have had periods when education has been of a high standard. Zimbabwe once had the best-performing education system in the southern region.

Competency-based learning is found in many sectors, and content knowledge remains the core of learning and is essential to fulfil the expectations of a job. The bottom line is that economic expectations are dependent on mastering specific content knowledge.

Policy-makers and strategists in the Department of Education have been obsessed with compliance and an evidence-based administrative system. Teachers have raised concerns about a paper trail mentality and workshop fatigue cannot be ignored, either. Teachers are constantly at workshops on curriculum changes, assessment techniques, etc. which are not aimed at improving learning. These may be necessary, but how does one motivate for advanced assessment methods when there are low levels of content knowledge?

Many opportunities for improving the education system have been pronounced. What stands out is the urgency to reinvest in teacher-training institutions and put in place in-service training systems that improve teachers’ content knowledge. The department must be applauded for reprioritising the system of teacher training colleges; of course, in a revised fashion. The department, however, has an obligation to advise its political masters to prioritise corrective and remedial programmes for pupils, too. The country cannot ignore the fact that we are collectively responsible for the bitter outcomes of the decisions taken by the Department of Education. Those unlucky pupils are the future citizens of our country. We should continue appealing to teachers’ unions to balance labour priorities with broader development objectives. These bitter stories must be corrected before they make history.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural-development consultant.

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