How can we collectively address education disparities in South African schools?

2015-01-10 17:15

South Africa has seen its fair share of moments that have often left many people with more questions than answers.  Some of these questions are: first, why if the Constitution guarantees equal rights to everyone, do we still have growing social inequalities—rich get richer while poor get poorer, and what role can education play in bridging these gaps, if any?  Second, why is it that our education system continuously deteriorates, relative to other countries that allocate far less money for education than South Africa?  The principles of our national Constitution are lauded the world over; its practical application, however, is often questioned.  For instance, we have succeeded in providing free basic education to almost all young people, but have failed, to a significant extent, to ensure the quality of that education.  Bearing these paradoxes in mind, how can we collectively address these inequalities in our school system? I want to explore two concepts, social justice and equality, and evaluate their contribution in bringing educational fairness.

Shale (1999: 35) observes that the concept of equality may refer to “sameness, uniformity, equivalence or similarity, depending on the context in which it is used.”  On the other hand, Zungu (1999: 19) notes that equality is concerned with each person having equal access to educational facilities.  When social justice is defined in terms of distribution, Turnbull (2014: 101) contends that it deals with the need to distribute equitable opportunities through a just system and providing for those in need.

Nieto and Bode (2008: 10) opine that any educational philosophy or program is useful if it focuses on the following factors:

  • Tackling inequality and promoting access to an equal education.
  • Raising the achievement of all learners and providing them with an equitable and high-quality education.
  • Giving learners training and the opportunity to become critical and productive members of a democratic society.

On the other hand, the Department of Education (DoE) (1995: Chapter 3, (1)) stipulates that “The paramount task is to build a just and equitable system which provides good quality education and training to learners young and old throughout the country.”  However, it is a tragedy that after 20 years of democracy we still have learners who are taught under trees.  It is equally heart-breaking that we still have learners whose schools do not have proper educational and recreational facilities such as libraries, computer labs and playing fields. In addition, it is unfortunate to witness at this day and age that our schools in townships are at the receiving end of inadequate teaching, relative to most schools in urban areas.  The latter is confirmed by the DoE’s National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) Report (2011: 19-27), which indicated that 3 544 schools did not have electricity, while a further 804 schools had an undependable electricity source; 2402 schools did not water supply, while a further 2611 schools had an unreliable water supply; 913 did not have any ablution facilities while 11 450 schools were still using pit latrine toilets.  Little has really changed as most of schools like these still exist 3 years after the report was released.

It is hard to ignore that South Africa operates under two education systems.  We have on one hand, schools that offer not only quantity, but also quality of education to their learners and these schools normally accommodate children from the middle to upper social classes.  In the very same country, we have schools whose standard of education is appalling and this is where you will find the poorest learners, almost exclusively black.  As a case in point, Limpopo public schools were left without textbooks for months, owing at least in part to party politics.  The reason why I bring these to the fore is that we cannot talk of the right to equality, as enshrined in the country’s Constitution, while these disparities in our education widen by the day.

We cannot talk of equality while we know that half of the children who enrol for grade 1 will never finish school.  Spaull (2013: 5) states that when school data is closely inspected, of the 100 learners who start grade one, 50 will drop-out before Grade 12, 40 will pass the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) exam and 12 will be admitted to university.  To bring the latter into perspective, Spaull (2013: 35) and Jansen (2012: 103) further posit that it has become an acceptable norm in South Africa that there is a small number of pupils (roughly 25 percent) whose academic performance in international tests is better than the majority of pupils (roughly 75 percent) who do extremely poor.  To bridge this profound gap it would seem that the only way out is the complete restructuring of the system.

The role of the privileged schools

Late last year, it was reported on newspapers that in South Africa there are schools that charge a whooping R1 000 000 on school fees. These are the schools that have a moral responsibility to contribute to the further strengthening of our township schools, in consequence give our poor rural school leaners a chance in life. We cannot redress our past educational injustices if there are no healthy partnerships among our privileged schools to help those at the very bottom. However, it is not enough for these schools to only take our talented learners and pretend as though they have singlehandedly nurtured them; what we need instead are school administrators who share their expertise with administrators who do their trade in deep rural areas. Even teacher regional exchange programme can go a long way in improving our ailing school system that seems to almost exclusively affect our black learners.

This is what we can do: 1) teachers in rural schools need continuous training on new effective teaching methods; 2) outstanding teachers in the system can rotate around poorly resourced schools to share pedagogical methods that work best with their otherwise circumstantially unfortunate colleagues; 3) schools that are better resourced need to come to the party by sharing their educational resources with less-resourced schools. This can be in the form of inviting learners from these poor schools to use their computer and science laboratories on specific week days; 4) the privileged learners need to be compelled, through the Life-Orientation subject, to spend at least 6 hours a week at the poor schools helping their unfortunate brothers and sisters with difficult subject concepts, that they understand because of the upper-hand they have in the resources department.

Sustainable and empowering learning ecologies as a catalyst for educational success, equity and fairness

The advancement of justice in our schools also depends on the creation of learning environments that promote openness, transparency and social justice, and this is where sustainable learning environments come into play. Mahlomaholo (2012: 1) defines sustainable learning environments as those where prospects of academic and holistic development are enhanced. Secondly, it is an environment where teachers are able to fulfil their roles as educators and mentors effectively and are motivated to do so. It is the responsibility of our teachers to take the mission of emancipation with their chests and understand that educational injustices are orchestrated by human beings and can also be undone by human beings. Mahlomaholo (2012: 2) affirms this assertion as thus: a sustainable learning environment is also about adhering to and applying the principles of social justice and ensuring that peace dominates and hope ensues.

I am convinced that these educational imbalances that seem to dominate our school system can only be part of history if we work as a collective. We can do away with quintiles that distinguish rich schools from poor ones if a collection outnumbers individuality. As South Africans, we need to understand that the plight of others is ours and success of others is ours, too.

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