Clem Sunter

The truth about Youth Day

2011-06-15 13:00

Clem Sunter

Among South Africa's numerous public holidays, Youth Day is one of the most significant. For it marks the day in 1976 when pupils from Soweto – with loss of life – rebelled against an unreasonable curriculum and an unreasonable distribution of expenditure between black and white schools.

Nothing is more important in life than a decent education. It gives you cognitive skills, it gives you confidence, it gives you a job. So, 35 years later, what does the scorecard on South Africa's education system look like? On the positive side, I would suggest the following:

1. Our good state schools (mostly ex-Model C) are better than Australian state schools for the simple reason that the latter do not play sport. South Africans in Australia are mixed about academic comparisons and discipline.

2. Our best private schools are as good as the best private schools in England and America and a darned sight cheaper – in other words you cannot get a better education anywhere in the world.

3. Our good universities are reasonable although none of them is ranked in the top twenty in the world.

4. Pupil representativity at the good schools and universities has improved.

5. Government spending on education as a percentage of GDP is now reasonable and so are the teachers' salaries. The curriculum has been constantly upgraded but schools now want a breather.

6. In all provinces, there are examples of outstanding black state schools which have improved their matric results largely due to the top quality of the principal.

7. There is a mushrooming of low fee private schools which are becoming increasingly popular among black parents.

8. Private institutions like Varsity College are now offering excellent vocational courses and career diplomas.

On the negative side:

1. South Africa is stone last in maths and science education in the premier league of nations. Out of the 28 000 schools in this country, only 5 000 are reasonable to excellent and 23 000 are dysfunctional to shocking.

2. While the money is there now, management and accountability in many instances are lacking, teaching staff are underqualified, books and equipment are not delivered and principals are not subjected to regular performance appraisals.

3. The academic year is often disrupted by strikes at the worst of all possible times – just before exams.

4. Faculty representativity even in the good schools is not good because many smart young black people opt for commercial professions.

I am not an educationalist so I will offer only two bits of advice:

1. Do not dumb the good schools down like Britain did in the 1970s, because it will be the worst flag for the nation's long-term competitiveness. The politics of envy must be avoided at all costs.

2. Follow the German model of offering the option of an academic or technical education in high school. They are the only world-class economy left in Europe and it is because of their education system. 

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