It takes a village

2010-02-02 00:00

MUCH has been written in the past few weeks about the state of school-based education in South Africa. One respected commentator succinctly referred to it as a “national disaster”. Another has described education as the “single greatest crisis facing economic development” in South Africa.

Most of what follows is directed at what is referred to as township or rural schools. These schools accommodate close to 80% of South African pupils from Grades R to 12. Those schools known as “suburban” or “ex- model C” schools cater for a very small part of the population. In spite of their small numbers, however, these suburban schools produce results in excess of national norms and are responsible for nearly two thirds of matric passes in certain subjects, such as maths.

To identify the weaknesses in the education system is not to deny that much has been achieved over the past 15 years. Pockets of excellence certainly exist and a degree of progress has been made since 1994. Those responsible deserve credit for increasing, for example, spending per child, teacher salaries, increasing the numbers of children who start formal schooling, establishing Grade R, initiating nutritional feeding schemes in primary schools and completing many infrastructural projects.

The above notwithstanding, most of the quantitative inequalities between urban and township schools still exist. The result is that there are still two distinct education tiers in South Africa. After nearly 16 years, 79% of schools still have no library facilities and 68% have no computers. Space does not permit a discussion of the shortage of even more basic requirements, such as functional toilets and electricity.

If the quantitative results are depressing then the qualitative shortfalls of our education system are even more so. To get an indication of just how bad things are, consider the country’s educational outcomes as measured against our own African counterparts: the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) measures comparative educational outcomes between African countries. Its results consistently show that in every significant measure of the quality of education, from language comprehension to maths, most African children from countries much poorer than South Africa are getting a better deal than ours.

For most businesses in the technical and engineering sectors, the shrinking pool of competent school leavers affects the future of their human resources and turnover. In 2007, Altron CEO Robbie Venter addressed a meeting of the SA Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE). Venter said that South Africa requires the training of 40 000 artisans per annum in order to meet our economic objectives. By that stage, the country was only producing 10 000 artisans per annum and I have no reason to think numbers have improved significantly. Regarding the training of engineers, Venter reported that South Africa is producing 1 400 per annum compared with Taiwan and Korea’s 10 000 and 30 000, respectively. Among the reasons Venter gave for this shortfall was, not surprisingly, the inferior outcomes of science and maths in most South African schools.

So what are we as a country to do?

In a very enlightening publication (The Toxic Mix: what’s wrong with South African schools and how to fix it), well-known education analyst Graeme Bloch makes two observations that will be of interest to local businesses and organisations that want to make a difference in local township and rural schools. In some cases their educational investments in the township school down the road will help to develop proactively their own pool of future human resources as well as earn them BEE points and good marketing.

Firstly, Bloch reminds us of one of the lesser known outcomes of the famous Polokwane conference in 2007. Education should become, once more, a wider social (community) concern. In language reminiscent of the famous People’s Education Movement of the eighties, the conference resolved that teachers and the wider village should be partners in the overall task of social transformation. In other words, the inputs and the outputs of the school system should not be the sole preserve of a particular political party or government department. Instead these are matters of national concern and every single sector of the wider village ought to have a say in how we develop the thinking skills and attitudes of our young people.

Typically, some sectors of the private business communities are way ahead in this regard. As far back as 2007, Altron outlined some of the progressive private training programmes in its industry. Most of these were initiated out of desperation because of the appalling results emerging from the Department of Education

Bloch’s second point is that well- functioning urban schools should be viewed as precious resources in improving educational outcomes among local township and rural schools.

Incredible as it may seem, this view is not held by all captains of education in South Africa. Instead, in some quarters, the “tall poppy” syndrome still prevails and there seem to be deliberate, politically motivated attempts to reduce these well-functioning schools and centres of excellence to the lowest common denominator.

Bloch supports his thesis with documented examples of successful “twinning” initiatives between well- resourced urban schools and their less fortunate counterparts. One such example is Parktown Girls’ High in Johannesburg which is committed to building relationships and sharing skills and resources with two local Soweto schools.

Bloch would be pleased to know that the KwaZulu-Natal midlands is no stranger to the twinning strategy.

Many examples could be offered but allow me to quote one that is fresh in my mind. Grace College in Hilton is currently engaged in an exciting twinning exercise with Edendale Technical and Commercial High School. Two weeks ago, the maths departments of the two schools met to understand better the specific challenges faced in Edendale and to plot a way forward. The idea is to work smartly, using informed, targeted interventions that have maximum effect, without overburdening the available resources at Grace College.

The preliminary meeting between the schools underscored for me the high value of these twinning interventions. When the eager young maths department of a township school is twinned with over 20 years of high- quality maths teaching experience, there are bound to be benefits.

Naturally, the above project with its various interventions comes at a cost. By the end of 2010, the much-needed improvements in the maths outcomes of the Edendale school would only have been achieved as a result of many hours of careful research, planning, integration and evaluation. Three or four Saturday mornings have been earmarked between February and October, when teachers from both schools will be exploring the curriculum content as well as best ways of communicating these to pupils. Further to that there is also the possibility of top maths pupils from both schools pitching in to add a powerful peer education and nation- building dimension to the project.

Sponsors have to be found for these kinds of interventions and this is one of the roles that the business community could play. Another role would be for businesses to bring their own invaluable, work-based experience, from whatever field, to bear on the twinning process.

The above twinning project is sponsored by UWP Consulting Engineers. UWP is a national civil engineering consultancy with a branch in Pietermaritzburg. UWP is so committed to growing future engineers and artisans that it has agreed to participate in some of the contact sessions between the two schools. There are few inputs that ground an abstract section of the maths curriculum quite as well as an illustrated explanation by an engineer on how he or she applies theory to practice.

This article is not proposing that the wider community should displace or subvert the Department of Education. Firstly, as taxpayers we expect to see returns on our massive investment in the Department of Education. Before the private sector reaches for its cheque book, the department should be held accountable and the village should expect to see evidence of planning and good human and financial resource management. For its part, the department is quite entitled to expect that private-sector inputs should only be made in consultation with the appropriate school and district representatives. Ultimately, the improvements in our educational outcomes will come as a result of good co-ordination between the private and public sectors

Over the past six years it has been our privilege as an organisation to manage a number of exciting partnerships between individual schools and the wider community. We have seen teachers trained, infrastructure developed, school leaders stretched, equipment donated and children inspired. In most cases, the expected educational results have followed.

The time has come for political leaders and the Department of Education to recognise the key role of the wider village in the education of its own children. The time has also come for the wider community to seek out actively ways in which its considerable resources and experience can be put to good use in ways that benefit the whole village. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

• Colin McKay is a Pietermaritzburg-based educational psychologist who manages a local educational development network called SchoolTrade. SchoolTrade facilitates partnerships between about 20 local needy schools and the wider community. The SchoolTrade website is and the e-mail address is colin.

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