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Substandard education is a substandard future

19 January 2012, 06:57

“South Africa’s education standards too low.” These were the words of US talk show queen, Oprah Winfrey and the title of a recent article I read.

And I have to agree with her. Our current academic standards, sadly, only require a 30% average to pass. Yet most politicians preach that more people should go into business, assist with the growth of our economy and become economically independent as a country. Can we achieve this without addressing our deteriorating education system?

Understandably, most young men and women take these words, spoken by politicians, seriously (especially when they look at our country’s unemployment statistics). I do not have a problem with these young people’s desire to become professional business people but I do have a problem with the government setting such low standards and communities that accept these standards.

Year after year we compromise on quality for quantity, an educational quicksand that we are finding ourselves battling to get out of.

We are singing meaningless high notes of increased pass rates, allowing ourselves to become victims of populism and as a result we are building a society of underperforming professionals. Of course, funds are set aside to develop and assist these emerging business people and professionals but the hard work necessary to succeed in the respected fields is not worked on.

Today we put less than half the effort required in our work but expect success. What are we saying? Are we saying that we agree with these standards, are we saying that these low standards will not affect us in anyway? Are we not forgetting that these same children will be the leaders of tomorrow? Are we not realising how already the education system is affecting most of our municipalities and government sectors.

Sadly, the majority of our children are in government or model C schools and are subjected to these utterly pathetic standards. Are we saying quality is only for the rich? Did all those who fought for freedom hand it over to the wrong people? Did we wish to be in a position of setting equal and higher standards only to set them lower?

I saw a lot of young people on Twitter and Facebook write about how offended they are that an “American came to insult us in our country.” The same American who built and invested in a school that produced a hundred percent pass rate and 188 distinctions out of our own underestimated children. Oprah Winfrey said that “South Africa’s education standards are too low”. Oprah was responding to a question on how South Africa could learn from the success of her Leadership Academy for Girls. She went on to say that we underestimate the disadvantaged and therefore set lower standards for them. “Business people can’t operate successfully if they function with 30% to 40%,” she added. And yet this simple thing seems to elude most of us.

The government invests millions in school buildings. In Gauteng alone, 36 schools will supposedly be opened this term (13 are already opened). Perhaps, this is a way of compensating for poor standards. Yes, the burden will be lifted from other schools and crowded classrooms will be addressed. This, in effect, will allow room for individual attention and the pass rate might increase, but the quality of education will most likely remain the same (which makes the entire exercise of new schools futile). If the standards don’t improve, students will still struggle to gain access to tertiary education. Most will then go to FET colleges where the expectations for students have been adjusted downwards. The colleges will graduate professionals with poor work ethics and standards.

It is not the FET colleges that I have a problem with. Most of these colleges are very good. I am, however, concerned with our indirect messages to the world and the youth: that it is acceptable to settle for less even when the best is possible. That the government will always somehow find something or some help for you. This is a bit kind of mentality is will not help us as a country that promises so much excellence and with such high expectations of economic wealth or freedom.

Unfortunately, our lower education sets students up for failure. Most of the students hardly make it through their first year. Then most of these students decide to start a small business: a tuck-shop, a fast food store, a hair salon or fruit and veggie shop. Six months to a year those small businesses fail and they have to rent out space to foreigners from a country with a better education system and standard, a country that taught them great work ethics. These foreigners then take our same exact idea, product or even service and make it ten times more successful. Then we incite violence resulting in xenophobic attacks fuelled by jealousy and groceries are taken from their shops.

Today a lot of our little went to school for the first time. Will the situation12 years from today be what we expected? Will they graduate from matric having learnt hard work, determination and that competitiveness which is required in universities and the workplace? Or will they become yet another group of pupils that our government has set up for failure? Will they just be yet another group of government’s dependants serving as a burden to our economy?

Well, if our educational system remains the same, then sadly the future looks bleak for our young ones.

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