So when a former Vice Chancellor of UCT, who is also ex managing director of the World Bank, recently took the trouble to address national education issues at the invitation of the Social Justice Coalition, her message deserves close attention.
Mamphela Ramphele did not disappoint. In an atmosphere reminiscent of the re-energizing meetings of the UDF back in the eighties, she laid into the education system’s dysfunctional aspects with gusto.
We have to face it. Our public school system is in disarray. The statistics show that this is so. In 2007 only 42,000 out of 278,000 black learners who successfully matriculated were found to be functionally literate. When it is taken into consideration that all of 1,19 million six year old black learners entered the system with high hopes 12 years earlier, it is plain that a problem of monumental proportions exists. Ramphele was quick to point out that the outcomes based system, or OBE as it is called, came of age last year with its first crop of learners writing matriculation examinations. Worse results have emerged with lower pass rates being applied to compensate for this. Ramphele reminded her largely youthful audience that she is a product of the Bantu Education system which had a pass mark of 50%, not the 30% now being selectively applied to artificially boost pass rates. The unintended consequence of measures of this nature is that many matriculants are effectively unemployable in our sophisticated world of business and industry. Even university graduates who lack the basic “Three Rs” and the “soft skills” of intelligible communication and an ability to interface with the globalized world of modern economic life are unable to find employment at present.
Ramphele put forward five suggestions for the improvement of the education system. They are worth noting, and acting on swiftly.
Firstly, she called on Government and all involved in education to acknowledge the failures in the system. This is a necessary precursor to taking action to address the situation. It is so that policy decisions have not led to improvements and that a radical rethink is indicated. It is also a feature of human nature that confessing to failure is often the hardest step of all.
Secondly, Ramphele called on those who manage the education system to identify bottlenecks and situations in which what she succinctly called “quick wins” will be achievable. Although this was not mentioned, in the Western Cape it has been established that the fastest way in which to turn around failing schools is to improve leadership within each school. In co-operation with UNICEF, a programme designed to instill proper leadership qualities in school principals and senior members of school staff is in the process of being rolled out by the Education Department. The early indications are that this is an area in which some “quick wins” are achievable. It is to be hoped that other provincial authorities in the area of education will take heed and do likewise. The fact that there are still over 80% of schools without libraries and some without electricity, sanitation and even running water is an indication of bottlenecks that can be unblocked. It is unacceptable that classes are still given in the open air or in schools with broken windows.
Thirdly, Ramphele called for Government to be challenged on the unintended consequences of the policy choices made by it. She did not mince her words on OBE calling it “rotten” and suggesting that keeping it on “sucks.” Speaking truth to power is perhaps the most challenging aspect of getting the ship of education back on course. If it remains on its present course, the millions of learners who fall through the ever widening cracks in the system will be unemployable, unless adult education is rolled out on a grand scale to remedy the situation created by the years of neglect since 1994 and by the unfortunate legacy of apartheid.
Fourthly, a resounding call to hold teachers accountable for what they do in the classrooms of the nation was issued. This is a matter of taking ownership of the process of change for the better and bringing the energy of parents, learners, management in education and civil society to bear upon the challenges. It is for each and every individual to take responsibility for the solution; sitting back and expecting Government to find all the answers won’t work. The personal energy of each player is what will drive change for the good. Enough of a “tsunami,” as Ramphele put it, needs to be generated to bring about the improvements desired.
Fifthly, a call to challenge the role of unions in the education sector was made by Ramphele. She pointed out that over 88% of teachers are unionized and that often the unions are used to promote the interests of under-educated and under-performing teachers to the detriment of the system in general and the learners in particular. SACTWU, a COSATU affiliate, was named and shamed, to cheers from the learners and young persons in the audience. The truth is that the status of the profession of teaching, which is the mother of all professions, has been devalued in the new South Africa through the imposition of a questionable occupation specific dispensation of remuneration and promotion. The dignity of, and former respect for, the profession needs to be restored. It needs to be made an attractive choice of career, which it is not at present.
There is much of merit in these five points. The constitutional context in which they are made is one in which the right to basic education is guaranteed to all, and has been since the new era dawned in 1994. This is not a right subject to gradual implementation on the basis of available resources like the socio-economic rights to access to health care and housing. Money is in any event not the problem. Basic education is also a right available to young and old alike. The fact that it is not being delivered on a widespread scale is alarming, if not disgraceful. Those unemployable young people who emerge from the system with useless matric certificates, like those who drop out before grade 12, place an ever greater burden on the social security network or turn to a life of menial work, or worse, crime. This is not the “better life for all” promised nor is it sustainable in the long, or even medium, term. Decisive remedial action is indicated. The five point plan has been suggested by one well qualified to make such a suggestion. There is much more wrong with our education system than there is with our youth.
Paul Hoffman SC
(advocate Hoffman is a former senior member of the Cape Bar.)
January 4, 2009.