Fires to be lighted, buckets to be filled

2011-01-08 15:38

South Africa once had a pipe-smoking president who was prone to quote from the works of Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

This week we wondered if that former president, and his successor, thought of Yeats’s words as Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced a surge in the pass rate of ­matriculants.

“Education is not the filling of a pail / but the lighting of a fire,” the famous poet once wrote.

Is South Africa’s post-1994 school system lighting fires, or even filling buckets this year? We think not.

Despite Motshekga’s best efforts to emphasise the 7.2 percentage points surge in the pass rate; the big talking points in houses, streets and offices this week were: how is it possible for such a large increase after last year’s teacher strikes and a month-long World Cup break?

What does a matric certificate really mean? And what about the 173 000 children – 32% of all matrics who wrote exams – who failed despite only having to achieve 30% to 40% for a subject pass?

The legitimacy of matric is under serious threat and now is not a time to boast about a highly suspicious increase in pass rates, or score cheap political points, but rather to take a long, hard look at what we are teaching our children (when teachers aren’t striking) for the 12 years they attend school.

Few people would quibble with the assertion that our standard of maths and science teaching is not up to scratch.

Studies have shown learners’ language skills also to be ­lacking.

The diversity of the country and socioeconomic disparities require a creative solution to our ­education crisis.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer – the question of what constitutes a good education is controversial and complex.

Is it good enough to teach children the basics about a variety of subjects for 12 years?

Shouldn’t we also be pouring practical skills – as is presented at further education and training (FET) colleges – into the ­buckets of those with lesser academic capacities?

What can a child who passed matric with marks of 30% and 40% – and those who couldn’t even achieve this – really do in a brave new world of Twitter, iPads and space tourists?

Our labour market is flooded with unskilled ­workers.

And the economy can only absorb a limited number of students with doctorate degrees in English literature.

What we need is a generation of skilled entrepreneurs – plumbers, electricians, travel agents, carpenters, mechanics or chefs – empowered to provide for themselves when the state and business can’t.

One option is for Motshekga and her colleagues to encourage learners with low academic marks to ­rather undergo vocational training at FET colleges after Grade 9.

Those who perform well at school should receive a quality, challenging education by well-trained ­teachers in schools with roofs, libraries, laboratories and much less than 50 pupils per class.

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