Forward into the past?

2009-05-12 00:00

FOR anyone who believes that education and the future of our children are of any importance, 2010 has been an eventful year. First, the much-vaunted outcome-based education (OBE) system was scrapped. Not before time and not before it had frustrated thousands of pupils and teachers. It was a concept that was doomed to fail from day one.

Then we had the prolonged strike by public servants. Despite attempts to make up for lost time, this will seriously affect what pupils are able to achieve during the rest of the year and in the year-end exams. The government has attempted to address teachers’ grievances, but it seems like a patch-up job at best. The grievances will almost certainly rear their head again because teachers think that they deserve a better deal. That is a whole debate on its own. But ask yourself how far you can go today with a housing allowance of less than R1 000?

Perhaps there’s no need to panic. All that is at stake is the soul of our youth and someone is bound to come up with another syllabus. We’ll just throw the odd sop to the teachers and keep the whole thing rolling along.

What is certain is that the lights of the rainbow won’t stay on by themselves.

We are going to need educated, trained people to keep the show on the road. If the education system fails to produce them, then the fate of much of sub-Saharan Africa will be ours too. The signs are becoming increasingly clear.

Before we become too pessimistic and give up, here are some tentative suggestions for future policy. The title begs this question: is every innovation, idea, trend or direction good? By implication, should all the practices and methods of yesterday be abandoned without so much as a backward glance?

Before we answer these questions we would do well to consider a school called Mossbourne Community Academy which was opened by Tony Blair in one of the most deprived areas of London’s East End in 2005.

Children in the school are divided into sets according to ability. Discipline is enforced — pupils may not talk in the corridors, they wear neat uniforms and before each lesson they recite the school motto, which demands a high standard of behaviour, a good work ethic and respect for the teachers. According to interviews conducted there recently, the children are motivated and happy, the school has produced good results and the parents are delighted. Needless to say, teachers enjoy working there and they are in no danger of being assaulted.

There is food for thought here. It would be folly to advocate a return to the kind of repressive discipline that was practised in our parents’ generation. It would seem, however, that when psychologists and therapists started to tell teachers how to run their classrooms they threw out the baby with the bathwater.

Corporal punishment is an absolute no-no, but there are other ways to discipline children. Complaining about the way young people behave is an old refrain, but that is no excuse for not doing something about it. It is difficult to teach and learn in a classroom where there is chaos. Parents need to be consulted too as children who are disciplined and respectful at home are likely to take those attributes to school with them.

Another backward glance reminds us, sternly perhaps, that some pupils are academic and some aren’t. Any failure on the part of educational planners to recognise this simple fact leads to a watering down of syllabus content for the more able and frustration for those who cannot make the grade in real academic subjects. When pupils start to study subjects such as tourism and life orientation, teachers are left wondering. While these subjects may be useful, they can hardly have any real academic content.

When the planners next sit down to put together whatever they have in mind they should come up with something that differentiates between academic education and training. Encouraging pupils towards training should be done to publicise the crying need for trained artisans, and what a good living can be made in the trades. The new dispensation needs to have exit points so that pupils can leave to pursue this type of training. We must also do away with the stupidity of the so-called condoned pass. These two strategies should prevent many young people from aiming for levels that are unrealistic for them and aspiring to jobs for which they are not equipped.

We can’t afford to make any more mistakes with our young people.• Raymond Walker is a retired school master who lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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