The Big Read: The real education calamity
If you live in the northern areas of Port Elizabeth, your life chances as a young black child are already slim.
The familiar blights of drugs, gangs and unemployment make for a lethal cocktail of problems from which few youth escape. Which raises the question: Why is there no public outcry about the fact that since the school year started more than 50 schools in the area had not started classes? If there is a slim chance of escaping the daily, deadening churn of existence in this part of the country, it is education. Worse, the parents seem to conspire with the dysfunction of the education department to keep these poor children out of school. Activist parents want more teachers at a ratio of about one teacher to 30 children. The department either does not want to provide that level of staffing and/or it cannot afford additional personnel against a straining compensation bill. It does not matter - the children's slim life chances are now reduced to less than zero.
I have long discovered that what makes a local concern a national problem depends on whose children it is. Just like a fire in Khayelitsha or Kayamandi does not grab the same public attention and resolve as when flames threaten homes in Fish Hoek or Lakeside, so, too, this crisis in a neglected area of Port Elizabeth barely makes headlines. It is not middle-class children whose parents would by now have besieged government officials, created hashtags on social media platforms, and generally raised hell. Not here, where with every day that goes by, several hundred poor children again miss a lesson in basic mathematics or English grammar. This situation is and should be unacceptable to all of us.
Who speaks for these children? Unlike their university counterparts, primary school children are unlikely to scale the walls of parliament and threaten to disrupt "honourable member" proceedings unless "fees fall".
Yet this is where the money is more urgently needed, to strengthen the foundations of learning among schoolchildren so that fewer young people drop out and more pass respectably at the end of 12 years of schooling.
Of course, the local politics of parents and politicians in this area might be more complex than we know.
There also seems to be a complete ineptness on the part of the local officials of the Eastern Cape department of education to manage unpredictable enrolments flowing in from the many schools in the area. But none of this matters - no adult can or should disrupt the education of a child for the backlogs in learning simply multiply through successive years of schooling. Every child has the right to a decent education whether there are 30 or 40 children in a class.
Wherever I have travelled to observe schools in the region, from Namibia to Zimbabwe, or Botswana to Mozambique, there is only one thing that differentiates South African schools from our neighbours - the schools elsewhere are all industrious, busy, using up the time allocated to them for instruction. Yes, classrooms are often bare, especially in rural areas, and the in-class temperature can be intolerably high. But there is always a teacher teaching regardless of the politics outside or the resources inside the school.
In old-style economic language, the inputs are consistently high in terms of instructional time and that is why all these regional schools outperform South Africa in mean comparative test scores.
So what is to be done? I think activist groups need to use social media to signal for public attention flashpoints around the country where children are being denied education. The responsible media needs to draw attention to these hot spots with, say, a running front-page spot carrying a reverse count-down message like "#32 days still without education in Port Elizabeth's northern suburbs". Similar public notices can be carried for "Schools still without textbooks" or more pointedly "School X still without principal after three months."
Whether the problem is "delivery" by local education officials or misguided parents forcing school closures or interruptions as a result of natural disasters such as flooding, every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that no child suffers a single day without access to a decent education. There are limits to resolving these problems through the courts, as we have seen, and simply leaving the tussle to the egos of sparring political parties also accomplishes little. We need sustained attention to these problems by treating every child without daily lessons as if they were our own children.