Widely acknowledged to be in a state of crisis, education in South Africa is a hot topic of debate for many South African citizens. With 26% of matriculants who passed Grade 12 in 2012 receiving a nonconventional degree pass, the spotlight is firmly on the shocking skills shortages, lack of resources, poor teacher training, corruption and maladministration, a highly unionised teaching profession and low morale that plague the majority of South African schools.
Following revelations by Basic Education Minister, Ms Angie Motshekga that 1,700 schools are still without a water supply and 15,000 schools are without libraries.
Between 1999 and 2004, an average of only 4.4% of matriculants achieved Mathematics passes adequate for gaining entry into university to study natural sciences.
For the past 18 years, fewer than 7% of Senior Certificate candidates passed higher grade Maths, according to a 2007 Centre for Development Enterprises survey on Maths and Science in schools. Further, the fact that in 1999 only half of the country's Maths and Science teachers had tertiary qualifications in these subjects is as worrying.
In light of these statistics and their effects on Rhodes students, Rhodes University’s SRC Activism and Transformation officer, Mbongeni Ngwenya organised a panel debate recently aimed at addressing some of the underlying issues faced by many students who arrive at Rhodes University ill-equipped to deal with university.
"I've faced many challenges at university and I've been thinking about them. Let's talk about and investigate what's going on and what we can do to change things for ourselves and future generations. We know how high school is different to higher education and universities in general. If we face the same problems we can know how to overcome them," said Ngwenya.
Forming part of the SRC’s Human Rights Week events, the recent debate entitled “The Right to Education: Is your High School Education Good Enough for Rhodes University?” featured contributions by education experts, academics and activists from Rhodes University.
An overriding call for increased responsibility underpinned most of the brief presentations made by panelists, with Professor George Euvrard of the Faculty of Education challenging audience members to reframe education as human responsibility rather than a human right.
"The focus then is not on my rights but rather on what I can do to help others. Imagine if we had every Department of Education office in the country asking what they can do to help, and if SADTU had meetings to ask what they can do as teachers to help more pupils realise their right to education," said Prof Euvrard.
Another common concern among panelists was the focus on the dire state of primary education in South Africa, with panelists agreeing that one cannot adequately address the state of high school education without first addressing the lack of primary education in most schools.
According to Ms Sarah Murray, lecturer in English Literacy in the Department of Education at Rhodes University, education inequality is the most important problem in South Africa and has its roots in early childhood with children from disadvantaged backgrounds lacking the required support to get through school.
"Children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to be supported in their educational development and often face poor nutrition, lack of encouragement and support with literacy and emotional stress,” she said.
According to a national survey of performance, when the class of 2010 was in grade 3 in 2001, 30% did not achieve the required standard in numeracy, and 54% did not achieve the required standard in literacy.
For the class of 2011, the 2005 Grade 6 evaluation showed that only 28% performed at the required standard in numeracy and a mere 38% for literacy. This means that children enter school in Grade 1 with huge backlogs which teachers can’t always make up for, Ms Murray said.
"Children start to fall behind in Grade 1 with little or no support. By Grade 3 they are really behind and will probably never make up for it. By this stage they have no or little literacy skills and carry the deficit all the way through. If children are so behind the teachers can't do their jobs properly," she said.
Defending government efforts to improve the quality of education in South Africa, Ms Murray said the ANC does not receive enough recognition of their efforts and "the things that have changed since 1994" such as the school feeding scheme, introduction of Grade R, child grants, smaller classes and improved access to resources.
“The government has also worked hard to improve the curriculum," Ms Murray said, adding that an overhaul of the current materialistic societal values is required if real change is to be achieved. "We can't address education without considering ourselves. We are a very materialistic society driven by celebrity culture. We value people for what they look like and for their material possessions and undervalue teachers and teaching. We need to move towards creating a culture of hard work, honesty, caring about others and fairness,” she said.
This view was reiterated by Dr Nomalanga Mkhize of Rhodes University’s History Department, who called for a shifting of black cultural values around literacy. “Black children right now don't live in a space where social culture engages critical thinking of values... Materialism defines our culture and in the absence of an alternative, drives all other issues. Literacy is no longer prioritised. Forty years ago an illiterate mother would raise a son who would become an engineer because of her values of literacy. It's not like that today,” she said.
Adding that a key question to ask is “what distorted politics is driving this chaos and in whose hands are the means for administrating education?” Dr Mkhize said that ANC alliance politics have become so entrenched in the school system, “you can’t decipher what is going on” and described the relationship between trade unions and political figures as complex and compromising, which "cause huge barriers to any political solutions. We know the problems. What we need are politicians who think," she said.
Story and photo by Sarah-Jane Bradfield
Photo: Professor George Euvrard of the Faculty of Education