14 January 2010

Education as the joint responsibility of society

Return to basics

Editorial, Business Day, Johannesburg, 14 January 2010

THE new school year has just kicked off. To ensure we do not fail the class of 2010, it is important that we reflect critically on what needs to change in our underperforming education system.

We must stop acting surprised when poor matric results are released. The obvious truth is that a school career spans at least 12 years. We know, for example, that our primary school pupils consistently score worse than our international competitors — including other African countries — on comparative test scores for core subjects such as maths and science. 

Why then should we be surprised that science results in matric are poor? Poor matric results are not reducible to a single event, such as a teachers’ strike, that unexpectedly occurred in the final school year. They are the consequence of a poisonous mix of systemic failures that in turn requires intervention at various points of pupils’ educational journeys.

The poisonous mix includes facts endogenous to the education system — such as inadequate teaching skill, needlessly bureaucratic teaching assessment tools, and poor commitment on the part of educators — as well as exogenous facts not attributable to teachers, such as learners from poor backgrounds arriving on empty stomachs, unable to concentrate in class.

It is pointless trying to pick out the dominant driver of underperformance. We need to deal each one of these contributing factors a fatal blow.

On the teaching side it is encouraging that the education department has done away with the needlessly time-consuming and complex evaluation of each learner’s performance. Teachers should now start focusing more fully on imparting knowledge and developing basic skills rather than stressing about the methodologically fraudulent philosophy of outcomes-based education.

Still, even with these important changes the department needs to provide additional scaffolding to teachers such as ensuring learner support material arrives in time and school facilities are repaired or provided speedily. Sadly, many schools have already started the year with vandalised buildings. A bigger portion of the education budget needs to deal with material inequalities between schools.

As for the exogenous facts, it is important for national and provincial cabinets to see education as a team responsibility rather than as a singular departmental one. This means that interministerial, clustered interventions are necessary. For example, the welfare department should be roped in to help poor students. Hunger correlates with poor performance, and should be eliminated.

We can defeat these systemic problems. But to do so we must start seeing education as the joint responsibility of society, educationists and the whole of the Cabinet.

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