Nightmares and dreams

2008-09-15 00:00

Imagine a world in which you have no control over where your child goes to school. The names of all children of school-going age in South Africa get placed into regional hats. One name gets pulled out and is placed in an arbitrary school within the region until all names have been put against all the places available. You, as a parent, do not have control over what school your child is placed in. You know that your child will get schooling but not what the quality of the school is.

In South Africa this sounds like a nightmare scenario for parents who are desperate to ensure that their child gets the best education possible. Parents put in enormous amounts of money, time and effort to ensure that their children go to the best school possible and avoid the many dysfunctional schools that populate the educational landscape. The image of their child suddenly landing up in a school where pupils and teachers play truant or proceed to get either wasted or drunk as the day progresses and where toilet facilities are dangerous places to go both in terms of health and abuse, would be sickening.

It is precisely this kind of imaginary thought experiment that should galvanise us as a society to rethink what is currently happening in South African education. Some of us do have the ability to control the quality of school our children get but many of us don’t. So long as we are a part of the minority able to send our children to good schools we don’t have to engage with what is the current dismal reality of schooling in South Africa for most of our pupils. The thought experiment sets a veil of ignorance over what school our child attends and forces us to engage with the key question facing education in South Africa — how do we structure the educational system in such a way that the most discriminated within our society benefit the most? Currently we tend to ask a different question — how do I get my child into the best school possible? Although understandable, this response to the current situation in education is both short-sighted and selfish — shortsighted because there is no guarantee that you as a parent are going to be able to sustain the increasing costs of good education and selfish because you are doing this on the backs of other children who are suffering. An education system where vast disparities in quality are allowed will result in an already dysfunctional system only becoming worse.

There is no easy way out here. I feel this deeply as both an academic and as a father. As an academic involved in the question of how to break the current cycle reproducing inequality through education I push for researching what good educational practices are in our local schools. By local I do not mean our model C and private schools I mean 80% of our schools struggling with the everyday realities of elementary survival. Within these schools there are powerful and intelligent responses to the current situation. We need to understand, celebrate, expand and improve on these responses. Over the last couple of months this specific column, “Education Matters”, has attempted to do precisely that by providing researched ac-counts of, among other things, effective boarding schools in rural areas, good black female principals and the difficulties they face, useful principles to promote literacy for all and the importance of reopening colleges of education. Underlying all of these articles is an attempt to engage with what is effective and useful in the current struggle to improve education for all. But as a father, with my own daughter about to reach school- going age, the veil of ignorance can only be a thought experiment for me, not a reality of practice. I will not put my child in an arbitrary school just to get a South African flavour. I know from research that good schooling results in increased life opportunities and I want this for my daughter. I also know that effective schooling is only happening in a minority of our schools and that I will find the schools where this is happening and fight for my daughter’s entry. I don’t have any answer to this existential split except to hope that the work we are currently doing as intellectuals and teachers in the country will mean that our next generation do not have to face the same bad conscience.

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