Learn, the beloved country


From the difficulties of studying in a second language to the obstacles facing learners struggling through the poorly resourced no-fees system, South African education has been widely branded as being in a state of crisis. However, it’s only a crisis if you don’t know why something is a problem… or how to fix it.

The image of the Rainbow Nation derives, in large measure, from the fact that South Africa has no fewer than eleven official languages, so that all citizens have the constitutionally guaranteed right to linguistic equality. Unfortunately, owing to a mixture of historical legacy and unimplemented policy, the playing field remains far from even, with English occupying a hegemonic position proportionally to the number of South Africans (fewer than ten percent) who count the language as their mother-tongue. Why are so many South Africans at an educational disadvantage, and what can be done to remedy this state of affairs?

The power of English is obvious when considering that it is the primary medium of instruction in all of South Africa’s top tertiary institutions—including, as of this year, the traditionally Afrikaans universities of Stellenbosch, Pretoria and the Free State.

Many regard this as a fundamentally positive phenomenon. After all, English is effectively the lingua franca of the world, and many parents are pushing to have their children educated in English-medium schools rather than in their mother tongues so that they don’t miss out on life and career opportunities. A study by educationalist Jeevarathanam Naidoo on the hegemonic position of English in the primary schools of KwaZulu-Natal provides a number of conclusions as to why this should be so:

“Parents of ESL learners were influenced, to a great extent, by this hegemonic position of English at primary school level. This hegemonic position of English emanated from pressure from a variety of fields (local, national and international) on the citizens of South Africa for using English more than any of the other popular languages of the world, including indigenous African languages. English was seen to be significant mainly for the purposes of global trade and industry, and also so that South African citizens could communicate with each other in the global arena with relative ease. The hegemonic position that English enjoys in the global village, thus, has influence at lower levels in the educational milieu of primary schools in KwaZulu-Natal.

“The majority of parents of ESL learners at primary school level wished for their children to be taught through the medium of English in order for them to be accepted into this competitive global village. These parents noted that if their children were taught through the medium of their mother-tongue, namely, isiZulu or any other indigenous African language, then their children would be disempowered and disadvantaged in the global arena. They wanted their children to receive the best possible education so that they would be more successful than their parents. These parents attributed achieving this success to English being used as medium of instruction for their learners in the classroom.”

Interestingly, Naidoo points out that many parents are also aware of the importance of mother-tongue education at the foundation phase, saying that “while parents deemed it imperative for their children to learn through the medium of English at primary school level, many of them also deemed it important for their children to learn their mother-tongue, albeit as a subject at primary school level. Some parents wanted their children to learn in both their mother-tongue and in English at primary school level.”

However, Naidoo adds, moving learners to English-medium schools before they have acquired a sufficient master of English can have unexpected and unwanted consequences: “There are currently many primary schools that are now multi-cultural and multi-lingual in KZN because of the movement of ESL learners from isiZulu medium schools to English medium schools. There are also now many ESL educators teaching at primary schools where English is the MOI. In order to ensure that the ESL learners acquire a better understanding of the content of lessons taught, these educators often opt to code switch in class, as they feel that it is easier to code switch in class than to ensure that ESL learners become more fluent in the MOI. This often has disastrous consequences for the learners, as they become reliant on code-switching, and often perform poorly in year-end examinations and standardised tests set by the Department of Education.”

In other words, English, the language of Empire, retains all its power as the de facto language of commerce in a post-colonial world — that South Africa’s other official languages effectively occupy the status of second-class citizens when it comes to tertiary education.

Language and the constitution

What about students who may be deserving in every respect of tertiary study but whom the education system has failed, so that they lack the requisite language skills to succeed at tertiary level? Is it a case of unfair exclusion? What is the constitutional position?

Advocate, Jacques du Preez, writes, in reference to Professor Jonathan Jansen’s call for the universal adoption of English as primary medium of instruction, “Section 6(1) of the Founding Provisions of the Constitution enshrine English—along with 10 other languages—as one of the official languages of the Republic. No one disputes that it would be unconstitutional for any school (or other academic institution) to implement exclusivity on the basis of race, and, similarly, if it was unfair, on the basis of language. Neither does anyone really dispute the idea that English is the lingua franca and thus, as Jansen proposes, should be the language of reconciliation.”

Consequently, institutions are completely within their rights to adopt English as a medium of instruction. As Du Preez notes, “Section 29(2) of the Bill of Rights states that everyone has the right to receive education in public educational institutions (schools and tertiary institutions) in the official language or languages of their choice, where that education is reasonably practicable.

Consequently, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account equity, practicality and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.”

Furthermore, he adds, “Section 29(3)(a) of the Bill of Rights is clear: everyone has the right to establish and maintain, at their own expense, independent educational institutions, as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race.”

The situation is clear: the Constitution forbids any form of racial discrimination, but allows governing bodies to define their own language policy: “The South African Schools Act of 1996 —which applies to all school education in the Republic—defines in clear terms [section 6(2)] that the governing bodies of public schools determine the language policy of such schools, subject to the Constitution, the Schools Act and any other applicable provincial legislation. The caveat on school governing bodies’ prerogative to determine such language policy can be found in section 6(3), which determines that no form of racial discrimination may be practiced when a language policy is established according to this article (of the Act).

“Where a governing body, thus, fulfills its duties and powers in legal manner concerning the determination of a language policy, and the policy is consistent with the Constitution, it can hardly be said that unfair discrimination will follow.”

The problem, then, is that for too many students, English is a barrier to success at tertiary level, precisely because they do not have the requisite skills by the time they have passed matric. According to one school of thought, part of the problem is poor mother-tongue education. As Du Preez points out, “It has also been shown —fairly conclusively— that mother-tongue education during the first six to seven years of schooling achieves far better educational outcomes than education in a second language —even with regard to learning the second language (English) for use in high school.

“The poor state of mother-tongue teaching could also be addressed by carrying out the provisions of section 6(2) of the Constitution, which ‘because of the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people’ requires the state to ‘take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages’. Mother-tongue education in these languages, and the development of much-needed infrastructure in this regard could be viewed as a form of practical and positive measures to increase the status and use of those languages.”

Mother-tongue matters

A particular advantage that mother-tongue English speakers enjoy is participation in a culture of reading. Carole Bloch, Director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), has firm opinions on this matter. In an interview with Nic Spaull, she states that learning is made very difficult “for the majority of children living in South Africa after Grade 3 by forcing teaching in a language often not known well enough to use with dignity and depth.”

Tragically, the accident of being born into a language other than English carries major disadvantages under the current system. Bloch comments, “In a nutshell, we know that most children, irrespective of class, socio-cultural and linguistic background, are capable of becoming competent, avid and creative readers and writers but that huge numbers of mainly African language speaking children don’t – and that the conditions that need to be in place for successful learning to take place are mainly in place for children of the elite only. We know that a combination of factors is involved and that these cut across home, community and school. But we don’t seem to widely appreciate the incredible importance of the ‘invisible’ literacy learning that takes place in the daily, informal community and home language ‘goings on’ of literate homes, and what it means when such learning, for whatever reasons, cannot take place.

“We know that teachers ‘bring with them’ like children do, their literacy theories and practices into the classroom, and that a real stumbling block in the early years is how we still tend to train teachers to view their task as teaching skills as a priority over demonstrating and making possible the use of written language for personally meaningful reasons (This contributes to the learn to read/read to learn myth). We should know that this blocks many children off from highly effective learning strategies that could reveal them as exuberant emergent readers and writers that we expect from most young English-speaking children. We don’t widely acknowledge, and maybe we don’t know, that the consequence is a cyclical one of adults tending to underestimate poor children’s capabilities in formal education situations, believing the children are struggling with ‘the basics’, when actually, the struggle is that the basics of written language are being denied them!”

Asked to comment on the three thorniest issues facing South African education, Bloch responded, “The first is the fact that it is a tragedy that we haven’t implemented our Language in Education Policy of 1997, but that it is not too late and that this needs leadership from government and lots of information—in fact a campaign—to allow parents the opportunity to appreciate the issues involved in educating their children from a language perspective—how they would come to realise that they do not need to choose between English or African languages but that both are possible, and desirable.

“The second is that government needs to act on the fact that, until publishing in African languages is supported in a serious way, so that these languages are used in print for high status functions, including literature—and more of our adult population starts reading regularly for personal satisfaction and for pleasure, many children won’t become readers and writers in the fullest sense.

“The third would be to discuss how to use literature to find practical ways to create a different ethos among us—one that promotes and encourages empathy and respect for each adult and child living in South Africa irrespective of background. We’d gather people together to generate a curriculum of shared stories for children of all ages, from South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, which reflect the highs and lows of humanity—to support the growth of a new generation of people who reject stereotyping and prejudice, and value what we share in common, as well as our differences.”

Filthy lucre

In addition to the language barrier, there is another, much more concrete barrier to suc cessful educational outcomes: money. The entrenched economic inequalities inherited from apartheid and perpetuated through the lack of service delivery that has cost the ruling African National Congress so dearly in the recent municipal elections are mirrored by the marked discrepancy between results achieved at no-fee schools and Model C and private schools respectively. It’s a self-perpetuating system: the “haves” can afford quality education for their children, while the children of “have-nots” are at the mercy of what the system can provide. As Nic Spaull, from the Research on Socio-Economic Policy group at Stellenbosch University, has commented, “The tragic reality in South Africa is that if your parents are in the ”top” part of the labour market (the 15%), then you send your children to the ”top” part of the schooling system (for which fees are charged).

That gives your children access to university and that same ”top” part of the labour market you are in. If you are in the ”bottom” part of the labour market (the 85%), then the only schools that are available are the second-tier no-fee schools. And if you do that, the only way your children get to university is in spite of these schools (with a dedicated teacher or an extremely hard-working student), not because of them. In fact, Grade 8 students attending fee-charging schools are two to four times more likely to qualify for university than those attending no-fee schools.”

Then, when it comes to tertiary education, there is not enough state funding to send all qualifying learners to university. It was anger at this persistent inequality that sparked off the #feesmustfall protests, which caused such disruption at universities in 2015.

This anger is justifiable. As Spaull says, “Deserving students should not be excluded from university because their parents cannot afford the fees. This is unjust, unsustainable and unacceptable, as almost everyone now agrees. How we will pay for this is another story – but we all agree that rationing access to limited university positions cannot be based primarily on parental income. Yet this is exactly what happens in South African schools.”

“No-fee schools make up the vast majority of schools in South Africa, ranging from 66% to 88% of schools (depending on whether you ask pupils or principals, respectively), and almost all of them are dysfunctional, because they do not impart the knowledge, skills and values needed to succeed in life. There are at least 10 independently conducted, nationally representative surveys attesting to this.

“The problem here is twofold. First, most parents cannot afford the fees at Model C or private schools since they are frequently as high as university fees (R31 500 a year), and second, there are limited places in these schools. Of the 25 741 schools in South Africa, only 1 135 are former Model C schools and 1 681 are independent (private) schools.

Together, that accounts for only 11% of total schools. Even if we abolished fees in all these schools—and I’m not sure that is the way to go—you cannot fit 12 million children into 2 816 schools.

“I completely agree that a system where access to quality schooling is almost exclusively a function of parental wealth (in other words, our current system) is unjust and must change. But purely from a numbers perspective, we simply have to find ways of improving the quality of the 88% of schools that are free.”

To restate the problem: South Africa has managed to develop an education system that enables the vast majority of learners to attend school without having to pay fees, but the outcomes delivered by that system are utterly inadequate. The conclusion is inescapable: the system has to be overhauled completely so that no learners are left behind.

One country that has already performed this experiment with notable success is Finland. Forty years ago, Finland was considered one of the most backward nations in Europe; the majority of learners did not complete their education, while the few whose parents could afford to pay the fees attended private schools. Today, however, Finns enjoy the most highly rated education system in the world – and on a completely no-fee basis.

According to Harvard researcher, Tony Wagner, “In the early 1970s, Finland had an under-performing education system and a pretty poor agrarian economy based on one product — trees, and they were chopping them down at a rapid rate that wasn’t going to get them very far. So they knew they had to completely revamp their education system in order to create a true knowledge-based economy.

“So they began in the 1970s by completely transforming the preparation and selection of future teachers. That was a very important fundamental reform because it enabled them to have a much higher level of professionalism among teachers. Every teacher got a masters degree, and every teacher got the very same high-quality level of preparation.

“So what has happened since is that teaching has become the most highly esteemed profession. Not the highest paid, but the most highly esteemed. Only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom. The consequence has been that Finland’s performance on international assessments, called PISA, have consistently outranked every other Western country, and really there are only a handful of Eastern countries that are educating with the same results.”

For South Africa to turn things around and emulate Finland, it has to embrace the notion that equality can only be achieved by demanding excellence in education. This implies the need for vigorous reform. Some ideas for achieving this are provided by Professor Jonathan Jansen in a Facebook post titled “Ten things I would do first if I were your Minister of Schools”:

Stop the circus: no more announcement of matric results. I would instead announce the results of our investment in pre-school education programmes – how well prepared are our pre-schoolers for formal education?

Fire all the deployed officials in provinces and districts. Officials are welcome to re-apply on the basis of proven competence – party loyalties will be irrelevant.

Replace fired officials with coaches and mentors (not inspectors) for every teacher and principal who work alongside staff as colleagues. These coaches and mentors must have a track record of running successful schools or achieving high results in the subjects for which they are responsible.

Appoint an ombudsperson for every SGB to root out corruption in teacher and head appointments.

Ensure every child has a textbook in every subject within three months, or somebody loses his job.

Abolish the ANAs with immediate effect and assess every three years in the most vulnerable schools only.

Increase the salaries of teachers on one criterion only—that the children in the poorest schools show steady increases in achievement scores.

No teacher will be hired with less than a Master’s degree in teaching by 2018 and this status will be reflected in salary scales highly competitive with the private sector.

Teachers will show up in every class, every day and teach. Two strikes (misses) and you’re out unless there is a certified medical certificate, which can be cross-checked for dishonesty.

Teachers are given three months off every three years to improve their professional qualifications.

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Issue 412


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