Lessons from 'lifeboat' education

2008-10-08 00:00

One fear that continues to crop up in our educational “mythosphere” is the implosion of historically high-performing schools. Threats to these isolated beacons are legion, the latest being a no-fee school policy allowing conniving parents a way out of paying expensive school fees and thus forcing these schools into bankruptcy. Previous to this was the concern that performing schools would be flooded by poor pupils with weak educational backgrounds. These “good” schools are seen as lifeboats floating on a sea after the new ship of outcomes-based education crashed into the iceberg of apartheid education.

In the carnage, good schools are forced into the most terrible of decisions; who to allow on board and by default, who to drown. To take aboard everyone desperately clamouring on the sides would be to ensure capsizing, but to look a clinging face in the eye and deny access is to dehumanise those already on board.

We enter a world of lifeboat ethics where a couple of extras can be taken aboard, no more. How do we select these few, what criteria allow them entrance and how do we justify the exclusion of the rest?

Neither Marxism, Christianity nor ubuntu helps us out here. It is not an issue of reaching out towards the suffering, but of cutting them away. If you feel guilty, empathic or your heart is bleeding too much, jump off and allow someone else on.

Those on the lifeboat know their privilege and work hard to protect their schools from damage. Standards are high, facilities are polished and discipline is maintained. There are even races organised between life-boats to see who is fastest, although the waters are thick with bodies. The tragedy of success is palpable but at least there is no tragedy of the commons where everyone is allowed access to a common resource and quickly capsizes the boat.

This lifeboat metaphor for education in South Africa seems to leave us caught in a vexed morality tale with no satisfactory grounding place. Is there any kind of response to it? I would like to suggest two possibilities. The one route is to accept the rigours of such a lifeboat logic and to work accurately within its confines. We replace the romantic dream of good education for all with a hard-nosed acceptance of limited action. We accept that we have inadequate resources to solve a massive crisis and systematically work with what we have rather than what we would like to have.

Instead of putting together a problem list of all that is wrong with education in South Africa along with a dream of all that could be right we ask a different set of questions: what problems are the cheapest, quickest, easiest and most effective to solve? What interventions will give us the most returns? It turns away from asking what the deepest problems in our educational system are to asking what we can do, right here, right now, to make a difference.

Rather than a massive at-tempt to reconfigure the whole educational landscape through outcomes-based education, we would look for more tangible and effective interventions. Textbooks, for example, are relatively cheap but carry quality information to millions of pupils. Ensuring that our textbooks are well designed, well written and contain substantial content in a pedagogically informed way is a key intervention.

If we ask what quality controls there are for textbooks, we quickly find out that they are few and far between, with rushed production systems, minimal piloting and minimal selection criteria. What happened was that in the attempt to try to change everything in education we lost the ability to focus on specific key interventions and do them well.

The second response is to reject the lifeboat metaphor for education in South Africa as fundamentally misleading. If this is the case I would like to know why this is so and what other structuring ideas there are that catch this difficult educational time we find ourselves in.

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