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A broken education, in urgent need of fixing

Our education is broken. In the Eastern Cape it’s as if it has been flattened by a raging tornado. Each week, new stories reveal the scale of the devastation of the schooling system in the province. Still the authorities are mostly silent. When they do act, it is to apportion blame or suspend an individual. The frightening truth is that the entire system is in need of a complete overhaul.

It is not enough for authorities to think they can tinker only with the apparatus even as they inadvertently condemn school children to a bleak future as ill-educated citizens. This catastrophe is a national one, affecting us all, and it goes way beyond any political point scoring. If the authorities are still thinking that this is a ‘management’ issue, one that can be fixed by their army of management consultants, they are fooling themselves.

Perhaps the raw pain that the horror experiences young school children have been subjected was captured by Metro FM’s Melanie Bala who wrote “The lump in my throat was from reading about the state of education in the EC in today’s @TimesLIVE…” As she quoted from the heartbreaking article, “Kids, desperate to learn, balance their books against a wall to write. There are no desks, no chairs. Eastern Cape Education” This is a terrible indictment of the country, given the amount of money South Africa pumps into education but has very little to show for billions poured into education.

No one is asking the education authorities to perform any miracles, but surely they can do more than simply watch as the education system falls apart. Each year, the system has been falling apart, and with each thing that gets broken, it is impossible for despair not to replace hope. It is said, rob the young of hope and they have nothing.

There is a pervasive sense that the worm of tenders has ruined delivery and maintenance of the infrastructure of education in this province.  This is what drove Melanie Bala to exclaim “I don’t know much about building but that seems exorbitant! Surely you can build 10 classrooms, an office & staff room for R7m?” The department of education’s own price tag was an astronomical R50m.

There is no doubt that the trouble seen in the Eastern Cape’s classrooms of despair runs much deeper. Poverty is rampant in this province, and with it, its accompanying twin evil, hunger. When you read that children as young as three are dispatched to school because it’s the only way they can get a meal, you grasp the scale of the problem. And terrifyingly, this will most likely be their only meal of the day. Without food there can be no proper education as hungry children are unable to take in their lessons.

It is this that has driven Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of The Free State to start his ‘No Student Hungry’ Campaign at the University of the Free State’. This is a fine example of a simple, no frills campaign that is not aimed at enriching someone with a ‘tender’. Prof Jansen speaks not from the Ivory Tower of high management, but from the perspective of one who remains close to the daily struggles of students & knows fully the pain and anguish of hunger and poverty.

As Jonathan Jansen says, “There is no pain worse than student hunger. You are caught between the promise of a degree that will, they say, one day change your life and that of your family, and the pangs of hunger that keep reminding you of much more immediate, instinctual needs that must be met in order to survive” Acts of kindness are well and good & those that can afford it should support this & other initiatives. Jansen stands out because he criticizes as much as he solves so many of the problems that he is able to solve.

On top of that he finds the time to inspire his students to soar above their circumstances. Unlike many leaders, he is not missing in action, only to surface when there’s a ribbon to be cut, or a conference to address. We are lucky that there are other unsung leaders in education; teachers, principals and professors that are making a tangible difference in the lives of those they teach. Their dedication does not seek recognition or awards, but is driven by their innate goodness, that attribute we call ‘Ubuntu’.

But one cannot escape the feeling that the need for private charity serves to highlight the failure of those in charge of education to grasp the daily struggles of students. You cannot produce world class students if they are studying on empty stomachs. It is high time those in charge stopped lording it over deeply meaningless, astronomically costly conferences & other events and instead turn their attention to grassroots struggles.

The problems and failures of our education system cannot be reduced to those of feeding school children. But it is a good way of measuring the way in which a school is responsive to its larger role in society.  Perhaps this story from nearly two decades ago will reinforce this point. Ntabayengwe Primary School lies in the Ngwavuma area of Northern KwaZulu Natal. The school lies some 40km North East of the Jozini Dam. In 1993, I did a story on how a feeding scheme known as Operation Hunger brought hope to 414 hungry children at the school.

Prior to the feeding scheme, the young children used to fall asleep during lessons. Absenteeism was high, and malnutrition was prevalent in the school. But once the feeding scheme was introduced, once dull eyed children became vibrant, tasting hope in each morsel of food. I still remember the words of teacher Nonhlanhla Khumalo, then 40, who said “Even the children we thought were slow learners are now doing very well” In all these years, I’ve carried this story around with me because it showed how it’s in getting the small things right, that the big ones can be fixed.

The stories of the rot in our education system are legion, not just in the Eastern Cape, but in other provinces such as Limpopo. From undelivered textbooks in the middle of the year, to teachers that are focused on their union rights, to broken desks and absent teachers, it is clear that the system in a terrible state of disrepair. This is what has driven so many to give up as it becomes shockingly clear that SA’s education is in a disastrous state.

One of the under reported issues is the negative power of unions. This was eloquently captured by Njabulo S Ndebele in a recent column when he wrote “After a brief, agonised silence, TeacherX continued: “But I preferred to spend more time with the school children. Otherwise, I would have to spend a great deal of it responding to trade union demands.” He was referring to the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).

Njabulo Ndebele goes on to say “Rather, Sadtu is a strong organisation in a weak democracy in which a relatively low number of participant citizens have organised themselves to compete democratically with its vision. Inactive citizens give birth to a dominant party democracy that then spreads itself throughout the nation in a plethora of uncontested fiefdoms of power that cumulatively snuff the life out of the form of democracy voted for in 1994.”  Here is a link to his powerful article published in City Press There can be no doubt that active citizens will get the myriad problems fixed much faster than distant government officials. Jonathan Jansen’s initiative is an important one, but there are others too. They need our support because they’re not the grandiose initiatives typical of bureaucrats. It has already become clear that the schools that are strongest don’t wait for officials to fix problems. Instead they rely on a strong principal, a dynamic board & parents committee as well as local activists.

As Kevin Leo Smith says “Governments find it easier to confuse infrastructure of education with education. Books and good teachers will always be best”

Our education needs urgent fixing, but it is clear that what is needed is a complete overhaul of the system and the culture that has led to this collapse, not just of buildings and infrastructure, but also morale. Only in this way can we restore hope and dignity to schools that lie in the forgotten hinterlands of SA.

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