Many schools carry a burden beyond the delivery of academic excellence, including nutrition, pregnancy, violence and inadequate infrastructure
Let me declare upfront that, at St John’s College in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, where I studied in the 1970s, academic excellence was a singular objective that was pursued vigorously by teachers and pupils.
St John’s was a prestigious black institution and only the most academically talented pupils had the benefit of being admitted.
It was a jewel of black education in the Cape and beyond.
During and after apartheid, the school sector has been negatively affected by many societal challenges, and schools seem to be sites at which such challenges must be addressed.
Consequently, they carry a burden that goes far beyond the delivery of academic excellence.
These challenges include poverty, unprecedented degeneration of societal moral values, pervasive violence in communities and the failure of government to deliver decent school infrastructure.
They have had a direct impact on schools to the point where it is legitimate to ask whether the core business of pursuing and attaining academic excellence is still realistically achievable, especially in traditionally black schools in township and rural settings.
First, due to the grinding poverty that is caused by upwards of 40% of black South Africans being unemployed, schools have become sites of delivery of a much-needed meal for pupils.
An inordinate amount of time is spent in schools to administer the nutrition programme.
No one can argue convincingly that this burden of administration does not negatively impact on the quality and quantity of academic contact time between teachers and pupils.
The centrality of food provision to pupils in schools became evident when Equal Education and Section27 started litigation because the department of basic education failed to begin the nutrition programme immediately after the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown.
The argument, with which I have no qualms, is that there can be no meaningful education for pupils if their stomachs are empty.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the meal provided in schools is the only meaningful meal that some of the pupils receive each day.
The recent court ruling on this matter has entrenched the schools as not just places for intellectual development of youngsters, but also as centres for poverty alleviation.
Second, the epidemic of teenage pregnancy in schools has its roots in the degeneration of moral and ethical values in society.
In South Africa, more than 31.5% of teenage girls give birth by the age of 18.
In 2018, the World Health Organisation issued a report in which it said that, worldwide, annually, about 12 million girls aged between 15 and 19 fall pregnant.
It is not unusual to find a report that more than 100 girls are pregnant in one school. The poorest schools are usually the most affected.
There is no shortage of reports that this moral degeneration also manifests itself with teachers engaging in sexual relations with schoolgirls.
Some pupils in schools are not just pupils, they are also parents dealing with the associated responsibilities.
It has become normal to see schoolgirls queueing for social grants in towns at a time when they should be in the classroom.
Under such circumstances, is it not fair to conclude that academic excellence is not an immediate priority for such pupils?
Add to this challenge the fact that many girls miss two to three days of school each month due to a lack of access to sanitary pads.
This is another poverty-related challenge that schools must contend with, which is an obvious impediment to the goal of achieving academic excellence.
This absence from school each month translates into about 30 days’ absence per academic year.
Third, South Africa is a violent society. The current upsurge in the murder of women and girls, their bodies strewn in open spaces and bushes and yet others hanging from trees, is testament to the unacceptably high levels of violence with which we have to contend in our lives.
By February, before the intervention of Covid-19, the MEC for education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, expressed his frustration about the high number of violent deaths of pupils on school premises.
In Gauteng alone, it was reported that 12 deaths had occurred on school property. If one takes into consideration deaths happening in other provinces, the figure goes much higher.
This school violence is a direct reflection of what happens in society. It is not hard to imagine that the level of trauma this brings to pupils is unbelievably high.
How can we realistically expect pupils who are traumatised by these violent deaths of their fellows to achieve decent academic outcomes?
Fourth, the failure of the state to invest adequately in school infrastructure in rural and periurban schools has also not been helpful in achieving decent education.
The pupil:teacher ratio is still unacceptably high in many public schools.
The fact that, in the 21st century, 26 years after the attainment of political freedom, young pupils are still dying by drowning in human faeces in pit toilets due to the lack of decent ablution facilities is unfathomable.
Those who participated in the noble struggle to liberate black people from the dehumanising yoke of apartheid must be deeply embarrassed that, a quarter of a century after freedom was attained, there are still communities without access to clean drinking water and whose children are dying in pit toilets at mud schools.
Let alone the fact that sporting infrastructure is virtually non-existent; a situation that has substantially militated against any meaningful transformation and participation by black students in competitive sports.
School libraries and technological education are still a distant dream for many schools.
Had it not been for the advent of Covid-19, some people would not have been aware that there are a lot of rural schools that have no access to clean drinking water, which, in many instances, is a reflection of the conditions in the communities in which those schools are located.
Covid-19 has cruelly exposed the disparities in social conditions between rural and township schools on the one hand, and schools located in suburbia on the other.
In recent years, the average matric pass rate has been rising until it now sits at more than 80%.
This, of course, does not talk to the quality of the passes.
It has been claimed by some commentators that this sturdy increase in the pass rate has been achieved partly due to a significant dumbing down of educational standards.
The fact that our pupils do extremely poorly in international maths competitions, to the point of coming either second last or stone last, seems to provide empirical evidence to support that claim.
Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that some pupils reach advanced grades without the ability to read fluently nor comprehend what they read.
This is deeply concerning.
Under these circumstances, is it still reasonable to expect excellence in education from rural and township schools that are predominantly poor?
Nowadays, are there still schools such as St John’s College and Freemantle Boys’ High School near Lady Frere, which were renowned for putting academic excellence front and centre of their academic pursuit?
With both schools located in the most poorly performing province, the fact that they used to be centres of excellence may sound like a myth.
On top of these challenges, the advent of Covid-19 has left decision-makers dithering.
The only appropriate question to ask is: Education, quo vadis?
Dyasi is a scientist and educationist, a former vice-president of the SA Council for Natural Scientific Professions, and former campus principal and deputy vice-chancellor of Medunsa Campus