Thu Dec 08 16:23:40 CAT 2016

THE BIG READ: Wrong set of values

Jonathan Jansen | 2012-06-27 22:57:32.0
Prof Jonathan Jansen. File photo
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Even as a fresh-faced BSc graduate, I needed three textbooks to prepare my biology lessons. One was given to me by the school, one was borrowed, and another I bought with the meagre salary of an unqualified (no teacher's certificate at the time) teacher.

In preparation for a lesson, I would use one textbook to teach myself how to teach the concept of pH at school level. I would use the second because it contained the simplest experiments to test the acidity or alkalinity of a solution, and the third textbook offered the best test and examination questions at the end of the chapter.

Without the textbooks, I would have been a lousy beginner teacher. This is what makes the textbook debacle in Limpopo nothing short of criminal since a simple handbook is the only technology our poorest schools will ever have.

In the presence of an unqualified or poorly qualified teacher, a textbook holds the only instructional content that can help teacher and pupil alike.

A good textbook covers the content required; its chapters offer an outline of curriculum scope and teaching sequence for the inexperienced educator; it gives useful hints for in-class exercises and homework assignments. More than that, a textbook offers basic literacy in the instructional language, which often benefits parents, too, when the book is taken home overnight.

Since circuit and district officials are often not experts in subject matter and the school inspection system is treated as suspect, the textbook is the only reliable, informed, unthreatening infiltrator of the teacher's classroom. Unless, of course, you are in a poor province, where a simple thing like delivering a textbook collapses as a result of official mismanagement on a massive scale.

If a textbook holds such vital importance in the poorest schools of the country, the question, of course, is how officials in politics and bureaucracy can mangle this simplest of deliveries?

The wrong answer to the question is to assume that this is a "delivery" problem and that questions of corruption, inefficiency and incompetence alone explain this disservice to the poor.

At root, however, this is a values problem, not a delivery problem.

Any country that cares deeply about its children will not, under any circumstances, allow such a catastrophic disruption of learning.

It is, moreover, disrespect for the children of the poor. There would have been riots in Sandton or Durban North or Upper Constantia if the children of the rich had not received their textbooks halfway through the calendar year.

For the political head of education to refuse to resign is just another case of moribund South African politics in which there is no accountability whatsoever for the failure to serve. These, after all, are children of the poor - who cares?

For the same head to call herself the "mother" of these children is not only inappropriate language - she is not a mother of other people's children, but a public servant. It is also great irony to then say she would not, as a mother, "abandon" the children. She just did.

Part of the problem lies in the expectation that national government can control what happens in the far reaches of educational services in rural provinces. There is far too much corruption, conniving, conspiracy and contamination of the long service delivery line between ministerial authority in Pretoria and the unfortunate school in rural Limpopo.

Here is a good example of why we should resist the centralist thirst of some in the Jacob Zuma administration. They believe that central power works better than local authority; both spheres of government, in fact, struggle to deliver because they share the same value set in which the children of the poor take a back seat to personal ambition and party political interests.

Not even an instruction by a court of law could get the textbooks to the schools at a time when high schools are already preparing pupils for the final examination after the winter break. And when the books eventually arrive, the same cycle of non-delivery and growing despondency will repeat itself in the next academic year.

Whether it is nurses demonstrating care and diligence in the service of patients, or home affairs officials delivering official documents to citizens through efficient routines, or trains running on time without passengers hanging out of the doors, all of this reflects not on delivery, but on a value system that needs urgent fixing. This crisis is definitely not about textbooks.

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