Education: More a bulldozer than a great leveler

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Education: More a bulldozer than a great leveler

In SA, if you have no money you have no say in the education of your children and thus their future success

Columnist

Anxious parents have been calling a lot recently. The child is in Grade 7 and waiting to hear from the schools s/he applied to for the first year of high school. Or the young adolescent is in Grade 12 and it is not clear whether s/he will be accepted to the universities applied to. The reason? The June examination results do not look too good and could scupper chances of admission to a favoured school or university. These transitions are always difficult but especially for children from struggling families. And it is especially hard when the reason for the poor June results − the single most important factor in whether or not you access a good institution − is the teacher.
I listened carefully to sometimes very emotional parents these past weeks and I could not help but share their distress. The stories go something like this. Mr Hatchett is not qualified to teach high school mathematics − “he told us himself” − but nobody else was available so the principal insisted the teacher help out. This happens often in our country and in cases where parents pay north of R80,000 for tuition, they do two things − they raise hell at the school which normally can afford to hire a specialist maths teacher while Ms Weatherbottom is on maternity leave; and they hire expensive tutors for after-school maths tutoring.
But when you’re struggling financially, you first of all cannot afford to pay those kinds of fees or expensive tutors, and you are also unlikely to storm into the principal’s office and demand a competent mathematics teacher. Even if you did, the school leadership will shrug its shoulders and say: “There is nothing we can do”, or: “We brought it to the attention of the department but there has been no response” or, worse: “Mr Hatchett is really trying his best under the circumstances.”
This is how schools reproduce inequality and why more and more researchers are coming to the conclusion that education is not the great leveler many believe that gives equal opportunity to those at the bottom of the system. This simple example shows how privilege sustains itself and how poverty scrambles for a seat at the education table.These struggling parents know exactly what is at stake. Getting into that prestigious child psychology programme at the desired university will open doors to a profession that nobody in the family could even dream of. For this Grade 12 child − whose father is a taxi-driver and whose mother is a cashier − a solid university education is infinitely more profitable than a hairdressing certificate from a low-class vocational college. Similarly, what high school you attend is crucial in determining your life chances and so the parents of the Grade 7 child lose sleep at night because of those June results. These, by the way, are real stories and in both cases the problem is the incompetent teacher.
This is why I get so irritated when a party apparatchik boasts that “we have achieved near universal primary enrolments”. Actually, in South Africa (compared to other frontline states) enrolment was always relatively high during the war years. Access is not our problem; quality education is. And this simple example shows how schooling continues to fail the poor. So what is to be done?
For some strange reason South Africans vent frustration at everything else − from racism in schools to deadly infrastructure (pit latrines) to corruption in teacher appointments. But there is not a single activist organisation or movement focused on the quality of teaching or poor pupil outcomes in schools.
Until that happens, one way to address this problem is to demand that provincial education departments establish an education ombud with the mandate to hear parents and pupils on problems with teaching and learning in public schools. Those complaints are then investigated and brought to the attention of the provincial education department with the duty to act within specified timeframes to resolve the problem. The education ombud should be given legal status that empowers it to act on governmental recalcitrance and it should also be provided with educational expertise to make sensible recommendations to resolve complaints.
Which brings me to the principals of these schools that deploy incompetent teachers. Where is your leadership? Where is your outrage? And why do you allow this to happen year after year? I am convinced that if your own child was in those classrooms you would never allow this dire situation to continue. Please do something. We are not powerless in this struggle for quality education.

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