Celebrate local innovation on education

2013-08-20 10:00

Our young democracy is almost 20. We are too old to be chasing the party balloons of quick fixes. They always pop when we catch them.

Education seems particularly prone to a range of alluring, ephemeral ideas, usually imported from elsewhere and which are supposed to provide one-and-only solutions to our woes. Implemented well, they may be part of a long, painstaking journey to educational excellence. Implemented badly, they do damage. Remember outcomes-based education?

Low-fee private schools have a role to play. Perhaps contract schools do too. But it is a pity if they seem acceptable simply because they are private. This sends the education debate in the wrong direction.

There is so much variation within each category, in South Africa and elsewhere, that the categories “public” and “private” are meaningless. We are old enough, as a nation, to conduct a nuanced debate around each of the many forms of education provision.

The article by Sipho Masondo (“Private school for less”, City Press, August 11) states that the most expensive state schools are attended “by the children of wealthy parents”.

The law requires that state schools provide full or partial fee exemptions to learners who cannot pay.

A well-run former Model C school should have between 20% and 30% of pupils who are there on exemption.

If not, both parents and taxpayers should ask why.

The exemption matters for many reasons.

It provides an excellent education to young citizens who would not be able to access this in any other kind of school, private or state.

It shapes a context of diversity – not just racial, but socioeconomic – where our future leaders are educated.

Diversity should be one of the criteria parents with options use when selecting schools.

Masondo’s article describes one excellent low-fee private school in East Lynne in Pretoria.

There are many of these schools, including the new Spark school in Ferndale in Johannesburg.

They are not automatically good because they are private. Parents need to ask about funding.

Reliable research has put the cost of schooling per child in South Africa at R17?000 per year.

How is the shortfall between that and fees being made up? Innovation such as information technology is one way.

Another common way is through reduced teacher salaries.

Only the elite private schools can afford salaries higher than the amount state schools pay.

But if salaries drop too low, those teachers will leave as soon as they get the chance.

If schools are donor dependent, is this funding reliable? If schools are for profit, what is the cost of this?

We are old enough as a nation not to assume that the imported solution is better, whether we are looking at education, at political systems or at vegetables.

We have lots of local education innovation to celebrate and to adopt.

In Cofimvaba, grannies are learning to use tablets so that they can help the youngsters they look after with homework.

In Soweto, the University of Johannesburg is developing maths teaching for very young children.

The Wits School of Education is working to awaken a love of reading in every student teacher.

The University of the Free State sends its students into deep rural schools, where they improve maths and language marks, and learn even more than they teach.

Provinces have projects, companies have projects, individual schools have projects.

Some of these projects work, some don’t. We need to interrogate, celebrate, adapt and adopt, not run after that shiny import that will break down on the first South African dirt road.

»?Godsell is an associate research fellow at Wits’ school of public and development management

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