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The Education Debate

Everyone in SA, child and adult alike, is entitled to a basic education according to our Bill of Rights – no ifs, no buts. In the first year of our current Constitution 1,19 million black learners entered the public school system in grade 1, most seeking the “quality education” that would lift them from poverty, prepare them for decent jobs and promote the achievement of equality in SA. Twelve years later only 278,000 of them succeeded in obtaining a matric certificate. Unfortunately, a mere 42,000 of these turned out to be functionally literate. This is an abominable success rate for the system and a miserable return on the nation’s investment in our public schools. In effect, our public schools in townships and rural areas are nothing more than a gigantic baby-sitting service in which very little education actually occurs. Private enterprises have taken to testing the functional literacy of work-seeking matriculants so that jobs are not given to those who can’t actually read and write properly.

Graeme Bloch and Anthea Jeffrey can carp, comment and criticise until the cows come home; irrespective of the legacy of the past, today, as these relevant figures show, we have a huge problem because so few black learners achieve a genuinely useful matric – they could all fit into Newlands stadium each year. The university drop-out rates are directly attributable to the absence of quality education in most public schools.

The problems posed by the paucity of quality education include exacerbated inequality, unemployable youth and continuing grinding poverty. The solution is to inspire all teachers to the standards of professionalism and ethical behaviour found in the better schools in the leafy metropolitan suburbs. An inspectorate with teeth, mentoring, an opportunity for meaningful improvement of teacher qualifications and an ethos of accountability that reverses the current union inspired slothfulness which leaves children short-changed and the nation without a useful workforce are all required urgently. All this is needed, not only for most schools, but also for those young adults who have been failed by the system and find themselves unemployable through no fault of their own. When our classrooms and teachers become the focus of attention we may escape the paradigm in which teachers fit a little teaching into their busy schedule of business, politics, union inspired activities such as meetings in school hours and illegal strikes.

Teaching is the mother of all professions; it is a noble vocation which deserves proper recognition and the necessary sapiential authority to serve the nation. Tinkering with curricula won’t help much and is meaningless to the millions who have been through and have been failed by the system. Adult education, especially for young adults, is all that will properly make amends for the failed experiments (pre and post 1994) performed on the youth of the country in the dysfunctional parts of the public education system. There is very little official focus in this area despite the crying need for mass adult basic education.

Paul Hoffman SC
13th July 2010

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