The Big Read: ANC needs to get more creative on education
When the ANC takes a position on education, as it did at last weekend's meeting of its National General Council, most people rightly take notice. It is, after all, the ruling party and, although the party sometimes speaks as if it were the government, the positions it takes matter and, therefore, require a closer look.It is right to raise awareness of the plight of rural schools. But much of the collapse of quality education is in the townships around the major cities.In some of the larger townships schools are empty as worried parents understandably abandon places of learning at which teaching is infrequent and pass rates abysmal.The hopes of rural families who migrate to the cities to find jobs and opportunities are often devastated in the dysfunctional schools on the city margins.The call for inspectors in schools is long overdue but is unlikely to happen. Deep in the DNA of South Africa's teaching culture is a resistance to the policing of what happens inside schools. And I am convinced that we have in the bureaucratic classes the quality and depth of education inspectors who could provide expert subject advice to struggling teachers and command the respect of experienced teachers, whom they serve as mentors and coaches.If an inspection means only demanding compliance and regulating professional behaviour, then simply putting officials with clipboards in classrooms will be a disaster.Not for the first time the call was made for teachers to be in school for a full working day. It is a statement that the president has made in more than one State of the Nation speech. And yet it does not happen.We are still a country with the worst record in the Southern African Development Community for consistent, committed, productive teaching in the poorest schools, and this fact alone places millions of children at risk.We can fix this only if there are consequences for not teaching in every scheduled class, every day. Appealing to the professionalism of teachers is a waste of time.Until errant teachers start losing their jobs for not doing their work, expect no change. But this means taking on the unions and, as I have said before, our government is unlikely to enter into such a confrontation with a major political ally.Now the question of teaching Mandarin or, better still, Swahili, would, in a well-functioning school system, be an outstanding idea. I like the idea of opening the minds of young people to languages and cultures in other parts of Africa and the world.But we do not have well-functioning schools for the majority. Our literacy levels in the lower grades are among the worst in the world as both national and international tests of language competence have shown time and time again.Until we teach our indigenous languages well and every child becomes competent in the transition language of English, it is a complete distraction to talk about other world languages. Such a policy would benefit the middle classes whose children are in the best schools but it would place an unconscionable burden on the schools at which most of our children are taught - trying simply to do the basics of language education well.It is a real pity that the ANC's National General Council did not take a strong, unequivocal position on free higher education for the poor. This must be a commitment or the cycles of discontent and violence at some universities will continue to plague campuses.Of course, this will require re-ordering priorities in government spending but nothing is more important than long-term investments in human capital, especially for those who need it most - talented young people from the poorest families. The provision of free higher education for such students is no longer only a policy issue but a matter of great moral urgency.What is not said by a political party is often more important than what is said. And here we have a problem. Nothing was said at the council meeting, at least in public, about the provision of high-quality early childhood education as the foundation on which later success in school is built. You cannot solve in high school or at university what was not established in preschools.We know that failure to provide quality early education for all makes social and educational inequalities worse.