Priority Areas for Educational Attention in South Africa by Michael Gardiner

Monday, 24 April, 2006 - 14:45

Against the backdrop of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) Action Week, Michael Gardiner of the Centre for Education Policy and Development  provides us with an opinion piece about educ

Against the backdrop of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) Action Week, Michael Gardiner of the Centre for Education Policy and Development  provides us with an opinion piece about education imperatives in South Africa. While the GCE focuses on the slogan, 'Every Child Needs a Teacher', amongst other things, Gardiner zooms in on rural education in South Africa in addition to advocating for a progressive programme to deal with issues related to access and equity in education. Read the article below.


Amid the myriad educational issues that clamour for attention, three have been identified as the main areas of current attention. These are: rural education (including schooling, ABET, teacher education and Further Education and Training Colleges), access to and equity in education, and the understanding and recognition of the relationship between schools and the communities that they serve.

Rural Education
Two recent reports – the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s investigation into education and poverty and the Ministerial Committee’s Report on Rural Education – have highlighted the conditions that affect families and children seeking formal education. Those conditions include limited access to basic services, poor roads and transport, few resources at schools and the effects of deep poverty, especially in the former ‘homelands’. These reports have moved the Minister of Education to take special steps to address such problems. And based on existing initiatives in provinces such as the abolition of fees at farm schools and co-operation between different Departments such as Education and Agriculture, it has become common cause that specific programmes such as the following should be given thorough attention over the long term:

• The consolidation of no fee schooling in all provinces even if only for the poorest 40% of learners and their families.
• Local school nutrition programmes should be developed and co-ordinated to ensure regular, balanced feeding for learners and promote economic activity in villages.
• Teaching in the Foundation Phase should be through the children’s mother tongue.

Matters of fees and language both affect issues of access and equity in education. They embrace physical as well as cultural access to formal education and fees in particular have been instrumental in excluding many children altogether. Nutrition programmes are important because of their effects on the health of children and their capacity to contribute to local economies. Research now shows overwhelmingly that children perform much better at school when they begin with learning through the language with which they are most familiar, and that this in no way retards high level acquisition of further languages later on.

Serious commentators now agree that schooling should not and cannot be discussed in isolation from contingent factors. All those factors that affect communities, families and learners now need to be taken into account in generating policy and planning development. This is a new and recent change of mindset.

There are other issues peculiar to rural education that need attention. These are adult education, the safety and security of children to and from as well as at schools, and the lack of opportunity for young people to study further. The closure of teachers’ colleges bereft rural areas of accessible post-school education, but the opening and renewal of Further Education and Training Colleges is a positive and welcome development.

Access and Equity
South Africa claims high enrolment figures for primary schools (as much as (97%) but by Grade 12, only 53% of those who could be expected to be there are at school. This is indicative of problems of retention and progression (as aspects of access) and of the value attributed to education in the current economic conditions where joblessness and poor employment prospects as well as other factors militate against school attendance. For example, a recent HSRC survey has indicated that 18% of ‘black Africans’ consulted felt that school attendance should not be compulsory, a figure six timed higher than any other group in the country.

Access means being able to get to school and back home safely and reasonably quickly. It means not being excluded for the day if household duties cause lateness. It means being at ease linguistically in the classroom and being able to express views and opinions as well as ask questions. It also means engaging with a variety of opinions and views and not being wholly reliant upon opinions and information from single sources. Access for learners means having their cultural values respected and valued at the same time as discovering the cultural concerns of others. Access also means having enough food to eat so as to develop normally and participate in classes. And it means freedom from bullying and other forms of violence.

When all South African children can rely on conditions such as these and complete their schooling, then we can talk truly about access.

Equity does not mean mere material equality at basic levels. It means enabling schools and learners to make good the deficiencies of their schools, colleges and universities, deficiencies that were intrinsic to apartheid policy. Equity is not about a tin roof and a plastic chair, even though some children still have neither. It means libraries and laboratories, audio and visual equipment, computing and extra-mural opportunities and particularly, the recognition and nurturing of talent. Equity also means the presence of educators who know how to make best use of school and community resources to improve present levels of learning markedly. Equity has local as well as national meanings, and this concept is linked to access, to the availability of resources, the ways in which the curriculum is implemented and the quality and commitment of educators. For example, how do schools accommodate the children who manage households and their siblings in the absence of parents, the needs of the disabled and of those children who have to care for parents with deadly diseases like TB, malaria and HIV and AIDS? It is here that access and equity come indissolubly together.

Schools and Communities
The observant reader will have noticed that all the points made above have direct reference to the relationship between schools and communities. That term ‘communities’ means more than parents whose children are at school. It has become clear that the role and meaning of schools is too important for the involvement only of officials, educators and parents. Urban and rural communities – including leaders, professionals, healers, pastors, cultural activists and many others not eligible for election to School Governing Bodies – have a direct interest in what happens at schools.

Learners have to reconcile the knowledge they derive from home and their environment and the media with that valued and promoted at schools. All these kinds of ‘knowledge’ have value and importance. Middle-class children are said to cope quicker and more easily with the types of knowledge and thinking that schools demand. That tells us much about the nature and bias of the curriculum. We have to find ways in which the forms of knowledge that young children encounter are given appropriate attention so that local, national and international needs are addressed by the educational system. 

There are many more than three areas of education in South Africa that need thoughtful attention. NGOs will tell us what they see from their position on the ground. An NGO like the Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD) has linked itself to education policy units at the universities of the Witwatersrand, Fort Hare, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape in the Education Policy Consortium that has been investigating educational issues under the umbrella title, Democracy, Human Rights and Social Justice in education These reports will be published during 2006 to add to the focus on central questions in the education system.

Michael Gardiner
Senior Researcher
Centre for Education Policy and Development

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