Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Department Of Education: Policies Or Fallacies?

My opinion piece published on News24
April 07, 2014

"Our vision is of a South Africa in which all our people have access to lifelong learning, as well as education and training, which will, in turn, contribute towards improving the quality of life and building a peaceful, prosperous and democratic South Africa.
Our mission is to provide leadership with respect to provinces, districts and schools in the establishment of a South African education system for the 21st century."
The Vision and Mission statement of the Department Of Basic Education, South Africa.
By any standards, these are high goals to achieve for a third-world education system wanting to attain first-world success.
The Department Of Basic Education is more well known for it's recent failures than it is for it's many accomplishments. The textbook saga will unfortunately always follow Minister Angie Motshekga irrespective of the sterling work her department has achieved in other spheres of education. Speak of a failure on the part of our education leadership and the topic becomes synonymous with Minister Angie Motshekga. Speak about ASIDI, Dinaledi or NSNP (National School Nutrition Programme) and very few have heard about them or know what they are all about.
The same can be said for Minister Of Higher Education And Training, Blade Nzimande. While many will remember his department for their policy of a 30% matric pass requirement, the commendable work his department has done with SETA's (Sector Education And Training Authority) and VCET (Vocational And Continuing Education And Training) largely goes unnoticed.

With all these great policies in place for learners, beginning at the basic education level and working their way through the system until they emerge post-matric hopefully armed with their glossy and full-of-promise certificates, one has to wonder whether governments objectives have been achieved.
From the very outset, the private schooling system and the public schooling system have set very different values with vastly different playing-fields which never level themselves out, no matter how much we'd like to believe otherwise. The public or government schooling system starts at age 6 in Grade 0 as compulsory, and age 4-5 in Grade R as optional. For all intents and purposes, this is when a learner entering a government school will have his or her first interaction with a teacher. Compare that to your average private schooling learner, who's first interaction with a teacher is usually around the age of 3. That's a three year headstart on learning, albeit at it's most basic level.

Once in the learning stream, the real process of moulding these young minds to become leaders and champions of society really begins. It is in these formative years that the building blocks are set in place for future success. For too long the definition of success held by government was simply that a learner attains a matric certificate. The bar was lowered and standards were drastically dropped in order for government to achieve this goal. Some believed that this presented a win-win situation for the ANC, as it showed an increase in learners passing matric irrespective of the 30% pass debate, while simultaneously 'dumbing down' the youth to create a nation of sheep instead of young lions. Sheep prefer to be led, and simply follow the herd. Lions are independant and fearless, and their roar is backed by their bite. An entirely different conversation for the conspiracy theorist, but an interesting one nonetheless.

The extent of the problem becomes really evident once learners have completed matric and are now ready to embark on their tertiary education. For those with university entrance passes, the choice is quite simple; a university degree or diploma. For those with anything less than a university pass entrance, there are FET (Further Education And Training) colleges, SETA's  and trade schools. Remember that grades 10-12 are already regarded as non-compulsory in the education departments policy, as these fall under the FET banner.
With many universities and colleges complaining about such basics as literacy levels amongst learners exiting the higher education stream, the bottle-neck seams to favour those learners coming from private schools with higher literacy rates and better grades. The problem is further compounded by hard-working and deserving students from disadvantaged backgrounds who qualify for bursaries, who invariably would have attended public schools, and who want to now enter universities or colleges. This places a huge burden on tertiary institutions who want to produce the best and brightest minds within those short years a degree requires. By adding a bridging year to a 4 year course simply to attend to issues of literacy, learners are burdened with an additional year of education which requires funding. Many are already financially stretched to simply cover their current tuition costs.

The recent SABEC (South African Basic Education Conference) held at the end of March is an indication that government realizes the failures in some of their policies, and hopefully plans to charter a new course through our existing education quagmire. Whether these new policies and the shift in attitude will have a positive effect remains to be seen. It takes an average of 12 years, from the time a learner enters the education stream to the time they leave with a matric certificate, to fully assess the competency of any changes implemented now. If these new policies and changes were undertaken with the mindset of a Fortune 500 CEO, the very first step would be to test the system by increasing the matric pass rate drastically in 12 years, while simultaneously implementing stringent quality control measures at the end of each year starting from the next batch of Grade 0's entering the stream.

While the future may look bleak for those learners currently in the Grade 0-12 stream, governments acknowledgment of the problem and addressing it with a serious view to realistic solutions offers a glimmer of hope to tomorrow's leaders.