Solutions to educational decline to come from us

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THE dimensions and details of the education crisis South Africa finds itself in are well known.

Two of the particular problems that confront high schools are high drop-out/push-out rates and poor educational outcomes from Grade 8 onwards, culminating in consistently weak matriculation results.

As learners move towards matric, when they write the National Senior Certificate (NSC) and hence when there is less leeway to skirt around the issue of quality, there is an accelerated drop-out/push-out rate. A full 33% of each group of Grade 11s does not progress to Grade 12.

The superficiality of formal access to education is shown-up by the stark fact only 33% of each successive intake of Grade 1s ultimately passes matric 12 years later.

The quality of matriculation passes is both generally poor and highly questionable. The deficiency of the passes is evidenced through the low number of university passes and the declining numbers of learners who pass mathematics and physical science. The value of the NSC in general and university-entrance passes in particular can be questioned when it is realised almost 50% of those admitted into the country’ s universities exit without successfully graduating.

Educational economists have established that educational levels and performance determine economic outcomes. In other words, without adequate education it is highly unlikely one will be able to secure meaningful employment. More specifically, without “matric-plus” an individual’s economic prospects are bleak. This means the vast majority of those who have exited the schooling system in the recent period have little realistic prospect of meaningful participation in the South African economy.

As many as 66% of the country’s burgeoning ranks of unemployed people are under the age of 35 years, and there are well over 3-million citizens between the ages of 15 and 24 years who do not work, go to school or attend a tertiary education institution.

A general description of the high school education crisis masks the racial, spatial and class divisions that give it a peculiarly South African character. More specifically, only 20% of high schools produce virtually all meaningful educational outcomes in the system, while the other 80% are dysfunctional.

The functional 20% of schools educate whites and middle-class blacks, while poor black children are subjected to a shockingly bad education in the dysfunctional 80% of schools.

This national reality pans out in every South African province and city.
In Grahamstown last year the three former Model C schools, that catered for 28% of the city’s matriculants, produced 71% of the university-level passes, whereas the seven township schools absorbed 72% of learners but produced only 29% of university-level passes.

There is a growing realisation that solutions to our educational crisis, in the short-term term at least, will not come from the state.

Almost 20 years into democracy, this is as chilling a realisation as is possible, yet it needs to be confronted by South African citizens, in a constructive and analytic manner. The choice ordinary citizens must make is either to sit back on the sidelines and watch the downward slide of the education system, or to take responsibility for arresting the decline through effective, practical actions.

In Grahamstown, a significant number of people, from all walks of life, young and old alike, are actively working to rejuvenate local education.

For example, Dr Ken Ngcoza heads up a science education initiative called The Khula Project, Madelaine Schoeman took the brave and inspired decision to give up the comforts of managing the outstanding Victoria Girls’ High School, to take on the challenge of transforming dysfunctional Ntsika Secondary School in Joza, Rhodes University students in their droves have rallied to volunteer in a variety of educational initiatives, and so on.

In addition, the city is supported by a range of institutions and organisations playing decisive roles in educational transformation. For example, the Rhodes University Community Engagement Programme has emerged as significant under the dynamic leadership of Di Hornby and Sarah Sephton has positioned the local office of the Legal Resources Centre as the hub of progressive education litigation in the country.

Gadra Education operates in this rich institutional environment. One of its offerings is the Gadra Matric School (GMS), which this week is awarded a prestigious Impumelelo Award for Social Innovation.

GMS was founded in 1994, in response to an expressed community need to enable young people who exited the schooling system having either failed matric or passed inadequately, to upgrade their results. The results of the school during the intervening period have been remarkable. In all but three of the last 18 years, it has achieved a subject pass rate of over 90%. Last year, the school produced a 92% pass rate in physical science and contributed almost 50% of local university-passes not produced by former Model C schools.

It produces these results with only one full-time employee, the principal Melanie Lancaster; all the teachers are employed on a part-time basis. Some do have other jobs but all are prepared to work for below-market levels of remuneration.

The school is well run, the teachers are passionate and professional, and the school ethos is one of love, responsibility and discipline. GMS, in many respects, amounts to the institutionalised voluntary redistribution of teaching resources, from the middle classes to the poor.

It is a clear illustration of what is possible when the citizens of a town take responsibility, in an effective and sustainable way, to equalise educational opportunities in their locality. GMS is the only civil society school of its kind in the Eastern Cape, the poorest performing education province in the country.

While it might be challenging to replicate an initiative such as GMS in smaller towns without the academic capital to teach across 12 subjects as we do, certainly there is the potential in the education centres like East London, Mthatha, Alice and Port Elizabeth.

Unless civil society intervenes the pass- rate problem and the education crisis will not be remedied any time soon.

Dr Ashley Westaway is the manager of Gadra Education