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Maths + Dreams = Kids who can

Comment: Escaping the Education Wilderness

Lets start with the facts. There are roughly 30 000 schools in South Africa. 1 500 are top schools. 4 500 are ok. And 24 000 are dysfunctional. If you had the unhappy misfortune of attending this last category of school you would quite literally struggle to work out that this means 80% of our schools are not providing an education fit for learners to face a future filled with hope.

So how bad is it really? Well, our Grade 10 average for Maths at IkamvaYouth’s Ebony Park branch is 28% and our Grade 11 average is 29% – and these are learners who put in extra effort to attend supplementary classes. Who knows what the real performance levels are of those learners who are simply going through the motions? In all likelihood we’ll never know because each year the schools tend to “encourage” Grade 11s who are likely to fail not to return for Matric as this will reflect badly on the school’s final results. So, as bad as the matric results are each year, the reality is actually much worse.

Then, consider this: in the last 3 years, we have added R100 billion to the public sector wage bill of which a hefty chunk goes to teachers and this is even before we include the additional R30 billion+ required to foot the current strike demands. Now I’m not sure about you but the last time I walked into the shop and bought something for R100 billion I had pretty high expectations of what I would get in return. And so the elephant in room that everyone seems to be ignoring is what return have we received from the previous increase in salaries?

The answer is surprisingly simple: the return is negative. Over the past few years, the matric pass rate has consistently declined and, if we allow some anecdotal evidence, any IkamvaYouth tutor will contend that the gaps in understanding are actually getting bigger not smaller. So who’s to blame?

The answer  to this question is a lot more complicated and the three power brokers (i.e. the unions, teachers and government) each have a lot to answer for. It is surely self evident that the union insistence that union meetings be allowed to take place during school teaching hours and an outright refusal to allow any form of performance management or teacher accountability is problematic. The truth is that most people would support an increase in teacher salaries (and a substantial one at that) and for my mind we shouldn’t stop at 8.6% if we know that the outcome is going to be an increase in the number of learners who access meaningful post-school opportunities. I mean, double the teacher salaries if that means more people can engage productively in the main stream economy but its a big IF. Sadly though, a sizeable number of the teachers themselves are simply not fit to teach and don’t deserve to be paid at all (never mind an increase) – many regard teaching as standing at the front of the class and reading from a textbook and once this is done they are actively disengaged (or at times openly disruptive). This is only further complicated by a government that appears fairly clueless as to how to fix this and it hasn’t helped that they have lost any moral high ground through dubious enrichment schemes to connected individuals and by splurging on unnecessary items like luxury cars, overseas trips and accommodation all the while asking everyone else to tighten their belts.

BUT this is all actually a distraction. The real problem is that the unions, teachers and government officials are relentlessly flogging a dead horse. The amount of time, energy and resources directed at this lifeless creature is phenomenal. In fact, this particular dead horse is more of a dead donkey given its less than impressive history as bantu education and the dubious transition through various forms over the past 16 years. We are so busy beating the OBE out of this poor thing that we haven’t realised it stopped breathing long ago.

Now if you want proof of this then proof will be provided by the startling results at the end of this year. We will notice (I predict) that the 2010 matric results will remain fairly constant with only minor movements up or down. For my mind this should be enough to convince everybody out of their denial. The schooling system is basically so stuffed that a 3 week strike by teachers a month before the final exams (meaning that the vast majority of learners will go into these exams thoroughly unprepared) will barely register on the final results. The good schools will continue to produce good results and the rubbish schools will once more produce the equivalent of a 12 year warehousing process for learners who at least managed to stay in school  – which is just about all they will be able to take with them from this process.

So, if its true then that the voice of the unions is far too narrow and the voice of government is far too compromised then what’s the solution? The solution is to locate the missing voice in this whole commotion that is distressingly conspicuous by its absence. We have to ask: where is the voice of learner? where is the voice of the parent? where is the voice of those who stand by those who bear the brunt of this dysfunctionality?

I’ve been listening for a while and besides from some occasional missives from Equal Education it’s a wilderness out there. We have to fix this. How do we do this? I’m hoping you might have some ideas (please comment below). The key question for me is how  we re-orientate this discussion to start from the basis of the learner as the most important element of this whole process? I honestly don’t think we can do this without a REVOLUTION and its a revolution that will need to be led by learners and parents. So to the learners and the parents… where are you?

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