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First Steps in Basic Education

Everyone in South Africa is entitled to a basic education. This is a right guaranteed to child and adult alike in our Bill of Rights. The state is obliged to promote and fulfill this right. It has not been doing so on a disastrous scale. The statistics are sobering; only 3.5% of the black (African) six year olds who started school in 1996 emerged 12 years later both functionally literate and in possession of a matriculation certificate. Those not so lucky are doomed to a life of menial labour, unemployment, poverty and all too often criminality. Jobs worth having are not available to the illiterate and the uneducated. Those who are not functionally literate, and this includes all but 42 000 of the 278 000 black matriculants of 2007 (the last year for which statistics are available), have no secure future in an economic dispensation such as ours.

It is accordingly of vital importance that the fundamentals be put in place as soon as is humanly possible. At this stage it is not known what changes in personnel and in policy will be made by the incoming national and provincial governments. There has been talk of a separate ministry for tertiary education, it is not known whether all or even any of the provincial ministers will remain in their positions; there is also no certainty as to who will be minister(s) of education at a national level. Jacob Zuma has made it clear that only after the election results are known will he set about the task of appointing a cabinet, should he be elected president.

What is known is that education has been identified as a priority issue by all major political parties. That there is a crying need for change is beyond dispute. We have succeeded in melding the various education departments of the apartheid era into one and virtually all of our children are in school. This is promising. What is less than satisfactory however is that most schools seem to function as mass baby sitting services in which education is not being delivered properly too far to many of our children. This is not the fault of the children. They have the same potential as children anywhere. The system of education ought to be unlocking that potential. It is not, on a frightening scale. Insufficient attention is paid to adult education, skills acquisition and vocational training. The private sector has neither the means nor the responsibility to teach the nation to read and write. This is the function of government at central and provincial level.

The first step is to get children to read. Surprisingly high percentages of youngsters in our primary education classes do not get this right in the system as it functions at present. There are however some signs of hope. The sheer irrelevance of euro-centric reading materials available in the system has been identified as a major blockage to the success of the early reading classes. Inappropriately illustrated stories about “Janet and John” are meaningless to young township children and their rural black counterparts. Poorly translated and densely worded readers are a definite turn-off to children who can, quite understandably, not relate to their content. A Cape Town based NPO called Literacy for All has actually done something positive to address these problems. Starting on a small scale in the Xhosa, English and Afrikaans languages the tireless educators at Literacy for All have produced appropriately illustrated readers for young learners. Instead of just selling these readers to schools, Literacy for All provides training and support in addition to the materials involved. This is vital to the success of any attempt to improve literacy levels in our schools. Too many of the educators in the system remain victims of the apartheid educational standards. Under-skilled educators are the order of the day in many township and rural schools. Instead of massive up-skilling in the past 15 years, encouraging educators who are dedicated to effective teaching and giving them the tools and skills tools necessary to do the job, there has been a consistent union backed sheltering of incompetent educators, contributing to the dysfunctionality with which the nation is saddled.

The training offered by Literacy for All offers an opportunity to educators and learners to actually enjoy teaching and learning reading. Crucially, Literacy for All builds on their prior knowledge and experience and conducts training in the educator’s mother tongue. The statistics produced in the schools in which Literacy for All’s “Kagiso Readers” and the accompanying training programme are already in use bear testimony to the quantum of positive energy introduced into the system by their use. The numbers of literate learners have soared. Inculcating a love of reading is a necessary first step, without which any later attempts at education are stymied.

Why then, it may validly be asked, are “Kagiso Readers” and the training programme not available in all schools in which they are needed so that the literacy levels can be markedly improved upon across the board? It is true that service organizations such as Rotary, Round Table and Lions could and, in some instances do, make a difference by adopting a school in their areas and providing the financial assistance required to cover the costs of getting “Kagiso Readers” into the hands of every needy child and making Literacy for All training available to educators who need it. But in the final analysis, it is for the departments of education in each province to correctly identify and address the need to provide the type of materials, training and back-up which Literacy for All has devised.

In the Western Cape, the province in which the Afrikaans, Xhosa and English languages are used by the vast majority of the population, the new provincial minister of education would be well advised to have regard to the early success of Literacy for All. In other provinces there may be other new brooms sweeping clean in the provincial education departments there. For the sake of the children’s literacy levels, let’s hope that attention is paid to initiatives of the kind embarked upon by Literacy for All, whose materials are available in all eleven languages, and whose training will soon be available in Setswana, with other languages to follow. Without such initiatives the task of tackling falling literacy levels seems doomed. With them, a positive difference can be made. The peace, progress and prosperity for which the nation yearns can not be realized if our children do not receive their constitutional entitlement to a basic education. It is time to properly deliver on the right to basic education to child and adult alike.

Paul Hoffman SC

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